Biden raised cases of Whelan, Reed with Putin, says he has hope

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — President Joe Biden said he is "not going to walk away" from the situations of two "wrongfully imprisoned" Americans, Paul Whelan of Michigan and Trevor Reed of Texas, following his Wednesday meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The families of the detained Americans I have hope for," Biden told reporters as he left a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland after the summit. 

"It came up, and we discussed it. We're going to follow through with that discussion. I am not going to walk away on that."

Whelan, 51, of Novi has been in custody in Russia for 30 months since his arrest at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and later conviction on espionage charges that he's vehemently denied. Whelan is now serving a a 16-year sentence of hard labor.

Biden said "we'll find out" in the next six months to a year if his efforts made a difference on a number of fronts, including the release of Americans in Russian prisons.

"Human rights is always going to be on the table, I told him," Biden said of Putin. "That's what we are. That's who we are." 

Whelan's brother, David, said the summit's outcome was more interesting than he expected, expressing gratitude that Biden raised his brother's plight directly with Putin. 

"I thought it was very positive," David said. "That was just so, so hopeful. It was just such a great thing to see."

Whelan's brother also noted Putin's suggestion in a separate news conference that there would be room for compromise on a potential prisoner exchange for the release of the Americans.

"It's not surprising at all that President Putin was non-committal about what the compromise in relation to the prisoners was," David said.

A University of Michigan expert saw some "bright light" for the American prisoners after Wednesday's talks, and he is now more optimistic that Whelan especially will get out, "though it might take a while."

From the Russian standpoint, Whelan is a bargaining device, and there's some Russians in U.S. prisons that might be potential candidates for a swap, said Melvyn Levitsky, professor of international policy at UM and a former diplomat who spent three years in Moscow during the Cold War.

"It seems to me that there’s the possibility there will be some sort of deal done, where we can get the people in prison there home, especially Whelan. From the beginning, I thought this guy can’t be an American spy," Levitsky said.

"Now, as Biden said, we have to look at the results. The deliverables. And one of the easiest ones is Whelan. It wouldn’t be hard for them to do."

Biden stressed to reporters why he wanted to meet Putin in person, including to communicate "directly that the United States would respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies." 

"It was important to meet in person so there could be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do," said Biden, who described the tone of the meetings as "good" and "positive."

Putin in solo remarks after the summit — which ended earlier than expected after three hours — said it had been "constructive" and that there was “no hostility” in the talks. It was agreed that both the U.S. and Russian ambassadors would return to their respective diplomatic posts.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, talks with US president Joe Biden,  during the summit in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021.

The two leaders also agreed to begin consultations on cybersecurity issues, though Putin denied U.S. allegations that his government was responsible for a recent high-profile hacks against U.S. businesses and government agencies. 

Biden warned that there would be consequences if Russia engaged further in election meddling or cybersecurity attacks against the United States. 

"He knows there are consequences," Biden said. "He knows I will take action."

Putin acknowledged that Biden raised human rights issues, including the case of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose prison sentence Putin defended.

Asked how he'd respond if Navalny died in prison, Biden said he make it clear to Putin that the consequences of that would be "devastating" for Russia.

Whelan's family on Monday released an audio message from Whelan recorded during a May 30 phone call with his parents in Michigan from his labor camp in Mordovia.

Whelan had implored Biden to secure his release when he meets with Putin to "bring this appalling case of hostage diplomacy to an end."

"I remain innocent. No crime of espionage occurred. The secret trial, without evidence, proves those facts. The abduction of an American tourist cannot stand. Congress, American citizens and supporters throughout the world echo my call for immediate, decisive action," Whelan said in the recording.

"Please bring me home to my family, and my dog, Flora, where I belong. Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion."

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, Rochester Hills Democrat who represents Whelan in Congress,  said she was feeling "very hopeful and optimistic" after Wednesday's summit. 

"In many respects, I want to continue to draw down on this administration to just bring this to an end," Stevens said. 

"It has just been very special and significant to have the president of the United States of America recognize Mr. Whelan and push for his safe return home to the United States," she added. 

"And while I don't want to make any predictions, I think today is the turn of something better to come, which is the goal of getting him returned to the United States, safely, and healthy and able to hug his vaccinated parents again."

Whelan, a former security executive from Novi, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and convicted about a year ago after a secret trial. His family has said he was in Russia to attend a friend's wedding.

The U.S. State Department has called Whelan's closed trial a "mockery of justice," noting Russian prosecutors produced no evidence, and Whelan was not able to produce witnesses in his defense.

Reed, a former U.S. Marine who hails from Texas, was arrested following an altercation with police in Moscow in 2019. U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan has described Reed's trial as a “theater of the absurd." Reed, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, was sentenced to nine years in a prison camp.

Michigan lawmakers in Congress have called on Russia to produce "credible" evidence against Whelan or to release him.

Led by Stevens, the Michigan delegation and dozens of other Capitol Hill lawmakers sent a letter to Biden Tuesday urging him to address the detention of Whelan and Reed with Putin, calling the charges against Whelan and Reed "legally dubious and politically motivated."

"These political arrests are unacceptable and fly in the face of international legal standards," the lawmakers wrote. 

They asked Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "redouble your commitments to stand up for human rights, due process, and dignity of Americans abroad."

"We also urge you to intensify wherever possible your engagement with President Putin to make clear that politically motivated arrests and the detention of U.S. citizens are unacceptable," they added. "We must continue to urge him to release all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in Russia."

Associated Press contributed.