Paul Whelan is a potential prisoner who could be released - as achieving a prisoner exchange deal is still an ongoing process following the Biden-Putin Summit.
Paul Whelan is an American citizen currently serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia. He also holds passports from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada. Whelan, a former United States Marine, was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on December 28, 2018, and accused of spying. He was convicted and sentenced on June 15, 2020, despite still maintaining his innocence.
Wheelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has expressed interest in a prisoner swap since then. Zherebenkov speculated that Whelan was being used as “leverage by the Kremlin to arrange a prisoner swap for two Russians in US custody, Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko.” Public efforts of his release hadn’t been visible until 2021, when Congress called upon Russia.
There are two active bills in Congress calling for the release of Paul Whelan: H.Res. 336 and S.Res. 165. The House resolution by Representative Haley Stevens and the Senate resolution by Senator Gary Peters were both introduced on April 20, 2021. The resolutions use identical language and make three demands of the Russian Federation to provide credible evidence, comply with international treaty obligations, and provide Paul Whelan (and all other political prisoners) with due process rights. To conclude, the Senate and the House: “expresses sympathy to the family of Paul Whelan for this travesty to justice and personal hardship, and expresses hope that their ordeal can soon be brought to a just end.”
The progress of these bills diminishes if tangible results are to come out of the Biden-Putin summit. Ahead of the summit, President Vladimir Putin expressed to NBC News that “he was willing to negotiate with Biden on a prisoner swap.” Trevor Reed is another jailed American in Russia. Putin conveyed that Reed’s case was a simple resolution. It’s unclear if Whelan could be included in such talks as Putin mentioned only a Yaroshenko-Reed swap. The exact content of the summit has yet to be revealed. Still, both sides have kept the possible prisoner swap cordial despite the media attempting to include Alexey Navalny in this discussion.
The congressional resolutions indicate that policymakers want President Biden to prioritize this issue while normalizing relations with Russia. Biden followed through, stating in a press conference: “To the family of the detained Americans, we discussed it, and we are going to follow through with that discussion. I am not going to walk away on that.” The release of Paul Whelan in a prisoner exchange seems to be an easily accomplishable result of the Putin-Biden summit. Whelan has accused Russia of engaging in hostage diplomacy: “This was done purely for political motive.” Though his arrest certainly raises concerns, it’s quite contentious to assume Russia is utilizing arbitrary detainment as a tool of statecraft. Especially when compared to countries such as China and Iran, which regularly engage in hostage diplomacy. For now, a prisoner exchange deal will likely mark progress in the US-Russia relationship at some point this year. Though a swap may be perceived as low-hanging fruit, tangible results moving towards détente should be lauded in any case. The return of Whelan could be the first step in the constructive development of bilateral relations.
Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).