Marine veteran Paul Whelan, now the highest-profile American imprisoned in Russia, was the subject of a dead-end negotiation over the summer, according to a U.S. official.
The Russians, the official said, told the U.S. that they would swap Whelan for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian assassin who is part of the Kremlin’s domestic spy organization — and who is being detained in Germany for murder.
Moscow said at the time it wanted “a spy for a spy.” The U.S. engaged with the Germans, alerting them to the Russian proposal. Berlin flatly rejected the idea.
At that time, the Biden administration was saying repeatedly that the Russians were refusing to engage in good faith, and that they were not putting substantive offers on the table. That language specifically referred to the Krasikov proposal, since Russia knew that he was not in U.S. custody, and therefore, the U.S. had no authority to release him.
In remarks announcing the release of the WNBA’s Brittney Griner Thursday, President Biden vowed he’s “not giving up” on securing Whelan’s release and would continue to negotiate “in good faith.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, expressed optimism about future prisoner trades, saying Friday “everything is possible,” according to the Associated Press, and “we aren’t refusing to continue this work in the future.”
But top Republicans are pessimistic about what the future holds for Whelan.
“I think Putin’s going to play him as a political pawn,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, who will be the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman in the next Congress. He told CBS News in an interview Friday, Putin is “going to leverage it for as much as he can,” adding, “we just have to be very careful, because if we don’t negotiate these exchanges properly, it can end up in more detentions, false detentions of really innocent Americans in Russia,” like Griner and Whelan.
McCaul said he thinks the Biden administration “got played” by Russia, and that the original deal would have been a trade of arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Griner and Whelan, and the Russians withheld Whelan “at the very last minute.” The White House has denied this was the case and told reporters that the deal was for Griner or no deal at all.
McCaul said he plans to press the administration on why it was not able to bring both Americans back.
Grace Kazarian contributed to this report.