President Joe Biden’s national security adviser announced high-level talks this week to secure the release of Paul Whelan, a Marine whom the United States considers wrongfully detained by Russia, but said American policy in Ukraine would not change to make a deal.
Whelan, detained in Russia on espionage charges, was not included in a prisoner swap last week for WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. A deal to free American Trevor Reed this year also left Whelan behind.
Griner was exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose return Moscow had long sought. U.S. officials have not discussed options for Whelan’s release publicly but said that Russia was not negotiating in “good faith when it came to Paul.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said National Security Council and State Department officials met virtually with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, and called discussions with the family “substantive.”
“We have been working to figure out what it’s going to take to ultimately secure [Whelan’s] freedom,” Sullivan said on the efforts to secure a deal.
He said the challenge for the administration is that Russia’s request “was not something that we had to be able to give.”
Asked whether the White House might consider a shift in U.S. policy to encourage Russia to come to the table, Sullivan said support for Ukraine in the war against Russia would not waver.
“If the implication is, are we going to take a different approach to Ukraine or something like that, the answer is no, we’re not going to take a different approach to Ukraine,” he said.
Senior administration officials have insisted that Biden remains committed to securing Whelan’s release, with the president’s hostage affairs envoy telling the former Marine that Biden is determined to bring him home.
Sullivan on Monday reiterated Biden’s commitment as he said the next high-level discussion with Russia on Whelan’s case would take place this week.
“This is as high a priority as the president has,” he said.