Claim: The Biden Administration negotiated to free Brittney Griner from Russian custody over former Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Rating: This claim is FALSE. While both should be brought home, Russian officials were not open to releasing Whelan during these negotiations.
On February 17, 2022, Brittney Griner was detained in Russia after Russian Customs Officials discovered marijuana in her suitcase. Brittney’s court case was initially scheduled for March but was postponed to late May, mid-June, and then finally July 1. On July 7, Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges and, on August 4th, she was sentenced to 9 years in prison and fined 1,000,000 Russian rubles—equivalent to just over $16,000 US. The United States began negotiations for both Griner and Paul Whelan, a US marine charged with espionage, back in July. On December 1, the United States and Russia reached an agreement on a one-for-one prisoner swap. The Biden administration made several attempts to release both Griner and Whelan but was only successful in negotiating for Griner back to the United States. Griner spent a total of 10 months being detained in Russia before being released.
After the release of Griner, both Elon Musk and former President Donald Trump criticized the Biden administration for “leaving a Marine behind.” Trevor Reed, another US citizen that was detained by Russians, was brought back to the United States in early 2022 but negotiations were not able to be made for the release of Whelan at the time either. Russia is treating the case of Paul Whelan very differently than other US prisoners and the Biden administration states that despite this difficulty they are determined to bring Whelan back to the United States.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said in an announcement. “And while we have not yet succeeded at securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
As the WNBA and the Biden administration celebrates Griner being brought home, the deal could risk creating an incentive for the arrest or abduction of Americans abroad. Additionally, the political right has criticized bringing back Griner due to her ethnic identity and being part of the “liberal elite.”
However, these criticisms do not acknowledge that Whelan had been detained in 2018, long before Griner had been detained. David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, has said that Trump—despite being a vocal critic of the circumstances of Griner’s release—did not seem to be interested in freeing his brother, or any other wrongful detentions, during his time in office.
While David Whelan would have liked to see his brother return home, he acknowledges that it was not an option in this round of negotiations with Russian officials.
“I think we all realize that the math is not going to work out for Paul to come home anytime soon, unless the U.S. government is able to find concessions,” David Whelan told the Associated Press. “And so I think we aren’t really sure what the way forward is.”
Officials involved in the prisoner swap negotiations say they would have preferred to have exchanged notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout for both U.S. prisoners, but it was clear that it was either just Griner or the deal was off.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home: The choice was one or none,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the State Department. “And I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane as Brittney.”
The Biden administration did not choose to free Griner over Whelan in negotiations with Russian officials. Officials close to the negotiations, as well as Whelan’s own family, acknowledge that the Russian government was not going to release him during that round of negotiations. The claim that former Marine Paul Whelan was left behind in favor of basketball player Brittney Griner is FALSE.