The family of American Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for years, said Monday he feels "abandoned" by the U.S. and that "his resilience is shaken" in the wake of Russia's arrest of a second American on espionage charges.
In a Friday phone call with his parents, Whelan, a businessman and former U.S. Marine, said "he feels as though the U.S. government has abandoned him," according to his brother David.
"His struggles have been apparent in his letters and in his phone calls over the years," David Whelan wrote. "But now, Paul seems rattled like never before, understandably apprehensive that the U.S. government will choose not to bring him home again, now that there is another American wrongfully detained by the Kremlin."
Last month's arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has brought renewed calls from U.S. officials for Russia to release Whelan.
Like Whelan, Gershkovich, 31, has been charged with espionage. Whelan, 53, was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Gershkovich is currently being held in pretrial detention. Russian authorities blocked American diplomats from gaining to access to the imprisoned reporter for weeks, but on Monday U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy tweeted that she was finally able to visit him.
The U.S. government has designated both Whelan and Gershkovich as "wrongfully detained," allowing additional resources to be applied to their cases.
But the reaction to Gershkovich's detention has also shown how the backing of a large media organization – the Wall Street Journal -- can place more attention on a case -- and more pressure on the White House.
"The speed at which Evan’s case has been handled by the administration should be replicated for every case," Jonathan Franks, the spokesperson for a coalition of families of Americans detained abroad, the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, said last week. "Unfortunately, we have seen firsthand that the reality is, that the speed with which the Government acts is very different for detainees who aren’t famous or journalists."
In response to Paul Whelan telling his family he feels "abandoned," a senior Biden administration official said that "since the earliest days of this administration, we have sought to bring Paul Whelan home."
"We will continue to pursue every avenue to secure his release until his is returned to his family," the official said. "As we have said before, the United States has put forward a serious proposal to Russia – Russia should take it. Bringing Paul home is important to the president. We have said that publicly repeatedly, and the private work on his case continues."
In the nearly four years and four months since Whelan was arrested, the U.S. has secured the release of at least two other Americans designated "wrongfully detained": WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, neither of whom was accused of espionage.
Griner was released in December in a prisoner swap for a Russian arms dealer after being held for nine and a half months. The WNBA had made a significant effort to draw attention to her case and pressure the Biden administration.
Reed had been held for two years and was released in exchange for a Russian drug trafficker. He was freed less than a month after his parents protested outside the White House and secured a meeting with Biden in the process.
"There is no favoritism – we work every case – those that are widely publicized and cases that go largely unreported on," the administration official said. "We will continue to throw everything we have at securing Paul’s release. We can work multiple cases at the same time."
Asked last week why Whelan's case is "harder," the United States' special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, said it was "always the Russians."
"The Russians have tried to fashion him into being a spy, which he is not," Carstens said in an interview with NPR. "And so they hold the key to the jail cell. The other side always does."
The State Department did not respond when asked for reaction to David Whelan's statement.
But sources within the department say that Whelan’s ongoing detention is not for lack of trying on the part of U.S. officials, but the result of Russia’s unwillingness to negotiate and how severely the Kremlin views the espionage charges against him—allegations the U.S. strongly rejects.
In early March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly revealed the U.S. had made a second offer to Russia for Whelan, calling it a “serious proposal” but declining to disclose any additional detail.
Blinken has repeatedly urged Russia to accept the agreement, but Moscow has broadcast little interest and there is no indication that that the administration has made any attempts to enhance the deal.
Whelan's family has maintained close contact with the State Department and the White House National Security Council over the years since Whelan was first detained in 2018 -- primarily through his sister Elizabeth.
But Elizabeth Whelan, David Whelan said, is now "going to pause her interactions with the State and National Security staff until they stop wasting her time and come up with something more than thoughts and prayers."
"It is unfair and unreasonable to put the burden on wrongful detainee families to grab the White House's attention, to do the creative work, to ensure that the different parts of the government are communicating clearly and working effectively to bring Paul home," he continued. "There is a literal cost to families to do this advocacy."
The senior administration official declined to comment on Elizabeth Whelan taking a break from interacting with the administration.