Blinken urges Kremlin to accept offer bringing Whelan, Griner home

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with his Russian counterpart Friday morning and "pressed" the Kremlin to accept the recent U.S. offer that would bring American prisoners Paul Whelan of Michigan and WNBA star Brittney Griner home. 

Blinken declined to share the response he received from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov but said they had a "frank and direct conversation." 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, listens during the U.S.-Japan Economic Policy Consultative Committee (EPCC) at the State Department in Washington, Friday, July 29, 2022.

"I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal," Blinken said during a Friday news conference with visiting Japanese officials. 

"I'm not going to characterize his response, and I can't give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely, but it was important that he heard directly from me on that." 

Whelan's brother, David, welcomed the news, saying he was glad to see Blinken press the case of wrongfully detained Americans.

"I hope that Foreign Minister Lavrov recommends to President Putin that it is in Russia's best interest to accept," he said. 

It was the first time that Blinken has spoken with Lavrov since before Russia invaded Ukraine five months ago. Blinken said that during the conversation he also urged Russia to fulfill its commitments under the United Nations-brokered deal to release grain shipments from Ukraine.

The Biden administration has refused to publicly discuss details of what Blinken referred to as a "substantial proposal," but CNN has reported the offer was to swap Whelan and Griner for convicted arms smuggler Viktor Bout.

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Paul Whelan, 52, has been held by Russia for 3.5 years since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's vehemently denied. The U.S. government deemed his detention "wrongful" and has pressed for his release from a 16-year sentence of hard labor.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in February on drug charges, and her trial is ongoing. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

More:Whelan family 'astonished' after Biden calls Griner's wife: 'What are we to think?'

Russian officials have long sought the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison, but multiple reports have suggested that the U.S. Department of Justice had opposed Bout's being part of a prisoner swap. 

The Russians recently agreed to a separate prisoner swap in the spring, leading to the release of another American, Trevor Reed, who, like Whelan, is a former U.S. Marine who had traveled to Russia as a tourist. 

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden phoned Whelan's sister, Elizabeth, saying he was committed to getting the Michigan man released "as soon as possible."

"We, of course, want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home. At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice," Blinken said during remarks at the State Department Wednesday.

"So we're working concertedly on both. We've demonstrated with Trevor Reed, who came home a few months ago, that the president is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans."

Both the State Department and the White House have declined to share details of the negotiations, saying the offer was made to the Russians several weeks ago, conveyed directly and repeatedly in recent weeks. The unusual step of publicizing the proposal this week was an effort to trigger a resolution to the matter, officials said.

"We hope that the Russian side will take it seriously," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. 

"We felt that in the context of what was happening in both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan's cases — as well as what was not happening — that it was important to lay out publicly that there was, in fact, a serious offer made by the American side that has not been acted on."

David Whelan, who is Paul's twin, said his family only learned of the proposed swap when the news broke on Wednesday. They were happy to see it, but David isn't expecting a swift resolution, he said.

The Whelans know how the Russian justice system works and doesn't expect the Kremlin will officially entertain the proposed prisoner swap until after Griner's sentencing when her criminal case has concluded. And much of Russian society is about to go on August break, meaning the sentencing could be delayed until September, David Whelan noted. 

"At best, this was like a first attempt. There may be additional negotiations, or there may be a decline, or there may be an acceptance, but I think it's months and months away," David Whelan said of a resolution.

"But, yeah, it's really extraordinary for him to go out and say, 'We're doing this. We don't have any idea how it's gonna received, but we're gonna be on the record for having done it.'"

Previously, the administration had not disclosed any actions or offers it had made to get Russia to release Griner or Whelan.

But in the category of prisoner swaps, the list of Russians in U.S. prisons that are frequently mentioned in Russian media is short: Bout, hacker Roman Seleznev and pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was traded for Reed in April. 

"Now, the Russians are in a position of having to respond to something that they have been asking for for a decade, and it'll be interesting to see if they feel like they can decline that," David Whelan said. 

Paul Whelan of Novi has been imprisoned since his arrest for  alleged spying in Moscow on Dec. 28, 2018.

The U.S. government has historically resisted prisoner swaps, in part over concerns about emboldening more hostage taking by foreign actors. The DOJ also has resisted trading a wrongfully detained American for a foreign national convicted in the U.S. justice system.

David Whelan doubts that the Justice Department has changed its mind about Bout, but attributes the latest developments to Biden's "courage." 

"He is looking at these issues and saying, Let's get an American home, and we'll make this hard decision and, essentially, I'll take the hit for that if there's a hit to take. I'm very grateful for that," David Whelan said.

"Even I'm conflicted about Viktor Bout being released, but, you know what? I don't know enough. I'm just a person living their life. If the U.S. government has looked at it and the president has approved it, then I would wholeheartedly support it if it got Paul home."

mburke@detroitnews.com