Washington — As the U.S. ambassador to Russia was visiting Paul Whelan at a labor camp in Mordovia, his sister was in Washington seeking a meeting with President Biden to urge him to find a solution to bring him home.
Elizabeth Whelan did not get an audience with Mr. Biden while she was in the capital this week meeting with administration officials. She last met with the president a year ago in the Oval Office. The White House has been in touch with her about scheduling a meeting with the president in the future, a senior administration official told CBS News.
Elizabeth Whelan told CBS News earlier in the week that she had requested the meeting to ensure the president’s advisers “have given him a complete picture of what it might take to bring Paul home, and I am not sure that that has happened.”
“Everybody wants to do the lowest risk,” she said.
The U.S. considers Paul Whelan to be wrongfully detained, a rare designation that puts the full force of the government behind securing his release. He was arrested in 2018 while attending a friend’s wedding in Russia and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges that he vehemently denies.
He has remained imprisoned while the U.S. has made prisoner swaps to secure the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed and WNBA star Brittney Griner, who were both wrongfully detained in Russia after Paul Whelan’s arrest.
Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has since been arrested on unsubstantiated espionage charges and is awaiting trial. The U.S. has also declared him wrongfully detained.
Elizabeth Whelan believes negotiating her brother’s release is only going to become more complicated once Gershkovich is likely convicted and the Russians reveal what they want in exchange for his freedom. The Russians have been unwilling to consider a potential prisoner swap until after his trial.
“We have this period of time before that happens to get Paul out because things are going to get exceptionally complicated,” she said, adding that there needs to be “a sense of urgency that I’m not sure I’m feeling right now.”
“I feel like we’re always behind,” she said. “We’re never on top of the situation and that gives Russia too much time to work out some other plan.”
While the meeting with Mr. Biden didn’t happen, the Whelan family said they were grateful that Lynne Tracy, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, visited him in prison Wednesday.
“It is good for him to hear directly from the U.S. that his release remains a priority,” his brother David Whelan wrote in an email Thursday. “Unfortunately, President Biden did not meet with Elizabeth this week as she had sought. A meeting would have reinforced the message to the Kremlin … that Paul’s case remains a top priority for the U.S. government.”
Elizabeth Whelan thinks the U.S. government is too concerned about “minimizing risk” and not focused enough on how to solve the problem as fast as possible.
“I don’t know what the Russians are asking for at this particular point, but whatever it is, it had better be possible,” she said.