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US man left out of Russia prisoner swap says diplomats ‘signed death warrant’

A retired US marine jailed in Russia nearly five years ago on espionage charges his country says are bogus has told the top American diplomat that being omitted from the White House’s past two prisoner swaps with the Kremlin at best “painted a target” on his back.

In comments to CNN published on Tuesday, Paul Whelan said he used a phone call in August with Antony Blinken to tell the US secretary of state “point blank that leaving me here the first time painted a target on my back”.

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“And leaving me here the second time basically signed a death warrant,” Whelan told the network in a telephone conversation that took place on Friday. Speaking from his remote prison camp in Mordovia, Whelan recalled also telling Blinken that “unless they got me back, it could be quite challenging in the future, especially with my age and the sort of work we have to do from a health and safety point of view”.

Whelan, 53, said he remained confident the US continued working to free him. But he told CNN he feared being forgotten amid “other geopolitical issues”. He did not specify whether he was referring to the war that erupted after Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, creating another major global conflict to go along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

“I think everyone’s trying to do the right thing, and I know that this will come to an end at some point,” Whelan said. “How long it will take I don’t know. But I’m being promised that I won’t be left behind here.”

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Russian authorities arrested Whelan – a corporate security executive from Michigan – at a hotel in Moscow on accusations that he was part of an intelligence-gathering operation. He received a 16-year prison sentence in 2020 despite the US’s contention that Whelan was wrongfully detained.

The Joe Biden White House last year coordinated with Russia on a pair of prisoner swaps that got the basketball star Brittney Griner and marine veteran Trevor Reed back to the US in exchange for the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout and drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.

US officials have said that Russia refused to include Whelan in those deals.

After Griner’s release in December, Whelan’s brother, David, said Biden’s administration made the “right decision” getting the basketball player back after she was imprisoned for bringing a small amount of cannabis oil into Russia. But David Whelan said he could not imagine his brother had “any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point”.

“It’s clear the US government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan,” David Whelan said. “And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes.”

According to CNN, Biden’s administration is trying to devise other proposals aimed at freeing Whelan from Russia after the country led by Vladimir Putin “failed to respond in a substantive way to an offer presented earlier this year”. CNN said the state department told the network on Monday that it remained committed “to bringing Paul home”.

In his statements aired on Tuesday, Paul Whelan said he thought it was “a mistake” for Biden to authorize the US to swap Yaroshenko and Bout “as quickly as he did”.

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However, he said he was aware that Russia has sought the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian ex-colonel sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany for murder.

Whelan said his prison camp’s conditions have steadily deteriorated. The hot water system and heat radiators need repairs. The prison shop no longer carries fresh fruit or vegetables, and canned goods have been discontinued amid a downturn in Russia’s economy, according to him.

“We’re hoping that some repairs … will be taken care of quickly,” he said.