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Talk of U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps heats up, but no sign Putin budging on accused American spy

In a recorded message, American Paul Whelan appealed directly to President Biden to help secure his release from a Russian prison.

Updated: June 15, 2021 - 12:21pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Speculation about prisoner swaps between the United States and Russia intensified anew in the lead-up to Wednesday's summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, with talk centering on a convicted arms dealer and a drug smuggler, and with one imprisoned American appealing directly to Biden to secure his release. 

"Please bring me home to my family, and my dog Flora, where I belong," Paul Whelan said in a recorded message that his brother provided to news organizations. Whelan is imprisoned in Russia after being convicted of espionage — a charge he denies.

Any forthcoming swap, however, most likely will not include Whelan, according to the man's brother. 

"The Russian government has talked frequently about using international agreements on prisoner transfers to exchange Russian and American convicts," Paul Whelan's twin brother, David, told Just the News. "But they have specifically excluded Paul from any exchange or reciprocal extradition."

The on-again-off again topic of swaps in general appeared to be off the table as of Sunday but was revived on Monday, when the Kremlin's news agency announced that Putin wanted to discuss the issue with Biden.

"Russia ready to consider prisoner swap with US, says Putin," read a June 14 headline in Tass. The accompanying article, which cited the Russian president's interview with NBC, quoted Putin as responding "Yes, yes" when asked about an exchange of prisoners. 

The announcement from the Kremlin followed back-and-forth signals from both countries over whether the topic is on tap for Geneva, and if so, who would be swapped for whom.

Both Biden and Putin last week appeared amenable to considering at least an exchange of cybercrooks. At a press conference on Sunday, Biden called Putin's suggestion of trading cybercriminals "potentially a good sign of progress" and said he was "open" to extraditing U.S. hackers to Russia. 

The White House later on Sunday, though, denied that Biden referenced such a trade.

"He didn't say 'prisoner swap,'" National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters June 13 aboard Air Force One. "What he was talking about was accountability and the idea that responsible countries should be held accountable to not harboring cybercriminals, and to bringing cybercriminals to justice. He's prepared to do that in the United States. He'd like to see Vladimir Putin do that."

Emphasized Sullivan: "This is not about exchanges or swaps, or anything like that."

The notion of prisoner trades arose in earnest in 2018, after Whelan was arrested in a Moscow hotel room, allegedly after being caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan denied the charges and claimed that he was set up. It was a prelude, some speculated, to Moscow offering to trade Whelan for Maria Butina, who in 2018 was convicted in a U.S. court of acting as an unregistered agent of Russia.

When Butina was deported in 2019 to Russia without being exchanged for anyone, let alone Whelan, Moscow began dropping international hints about who it hoped to recoup from the United States.

"Butina was going to be sent home after a very short sentence, so there was no value for Moscow in offering a trade for her," one U.S. intelligence official told Just the News. "But they waged a campaign for two much bigger fish who would be much more difficult to repatriate."

Again under the guise of Tass, the Kremlin suggested that Whelan could be traded for Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, two men convicted of dealing in two different forms of contraband.

Bout, the so-called "merchant of death" international arms dealer, was captured in Thailand on charges of selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a U.S.-designated terrorist group. A Russian citizen, Bout was extradited to the United States, and in 2012 was fined $15 million, and sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges related to selling those weapons.

Russian pilot Yaroshenko was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the U.S. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges related to transporting cocaine. 

"The issue of exchanging [Bout or Yaroshenko] for Whelan is being discussed," Whelan's lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, in 2020 told Tass. The swap would be looked into after Whelan was sentenced, the lawyer said at the time. 

Earlier this month, Whelan's attorney Olga Karlova told the Russian press that Whelan hoped to be exchanged as part of a prisoner trade. 

While Bout and Yaroshenko remain on Moscow's wish list, Whelan does not appear to be in contention for an exchange.

"These are some speculative approaches tied to the work of attorneys," Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, told reporters last week in reference to Whelan. "We have no grounds to say that something is in the works in the context of the summit or outside of it. In any case, the information backdrop of the upcoming summit includes reports that have little to do with reality. This is unfortunate."

Putin last week seemed to indicate that other imprisoned Russians could be candidates for exchange. Many more Russian citizens are in custody in the U.S. than Americans are in Russia, Putin told NBC.

"I know that there are convicted U.S. citizens in custody, but their number cannot be compared with that of Russian citizens remaining in American prisons," Putin said.

The imprisoned Whelan, meanwhile, appealed directly to Biden to help secure his release.

"President Biden, after 30 months of being wrongly detained by the Russian government, which is twice as long as American citizens were held hostage in Tehran, I implore you to bring this appalling case of hostage diplomacy to an end," Whelan said in a recorded statement his brother provided to news organizations. "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 ... Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion."

The Whelan family also presses for 51-year-old Paul to be released. 

"Our parents are unlikely to be alive, if he isn't released before his sentence concludes, and we all continue to work hard for his release so that he is able to at least see them one more time," David Whelan said. "It would layer cruelty upon injustice, if he were to remain a Russian hostage for 16 years."

The summit between Biden and Putin is scheduled to take place June 16 in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva.