WNBA star Brittney Griner is free from Russia after a prisoner exchange in which the U.S. released convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the merchant of death. But in exchange for Bout, the U.S. originally wanted both Griner and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and convicted on espionage charges in 2020.
“I mean, there’s a real question of whether or not there was even anything Paul Whelan actually did. That’s not the question. The question is the allegations themselves, and so much of what’s going on inside of Russia right now is perception based,” former CIA case officer Jack Rice said in an interview with Straight Arrow News. “And so that’s very, very important from the perspective of Vladimir Putin, and sort of how this is seen on a worldwide basis.”
Russia accused Whelan of being a spy for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Whelan denied the claims and called the trial a sham. The U.S. government said the allegations are manufactured and baseless.
Whelan was found with a USB drive containing the names of Russian border guards. He said the device was put in his pocket by a friend who is a Russian Federal Security Service officer.
Whelan was working as a security consultant at the time and was in Russia for a friend’s wedding. He is a citizen of the U.S., but was born in Canada and also has citizenship in the UK and Ireland. He received a bad-conduct discharge from the Marines after being found guilty of bouncing checks and attempting to steal $10,000 during a tour in Iraq.
“Part of his background makes the Russians more suspicious. And I think it makes them look weaker, in a sense, if they’re simply willing to trade somebody like that,” Rice said.
Whelan was previously left behind when the U.S. brought Trevor Reed home in a prisoner exchange in April. Reed is a retired Marine who was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges that he endangered the life and health of Russian police officers. He’s denied those claims.
Rice explained to Straight Arrow News why it has been so much harder to get Whelan out.
“Well, I mean, he’s another card, right? I mean, right now, what we’re dealing with right now is sanctions. And these are substantial sanctions by the West, against the Russians. And so that is already in place. And the idea of having another trading card is always something the Russians, frankly the Soviet Union, was very good at playing,” Rice said.
Although Whelan remains in Russia, President Biden said his release is still a priority and they will continue negotiations.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” President Biden said as he announced Griner’s release. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia has treated Paul’s case differently than Brittneys. And while we have not succeeded in securing Paul’s release we will not give up.”