By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
US officials “have had direct conversations with Russian officials regarding Paul Whelan,” an American wrongfully detained in Russia, since the release of fellow wrongfully detained American Brittney Griner, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday.
“Our imperative is to see that outcome brought about swiftly so it doesn’t do us any good to speak to the details of that. But we said we are going to be committed, we’re going to be relentless, we’re going to be creative in doing everything we can to bring about Paul Whelan’s return to United States, return to his family,” Price said at a State Department press briefing.
Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.
US officials were unable to secure his release in prisoner swaps this past year that secured the release of two other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia: Trevor Reed in April and Griner in mid-December. Multiple US officials said following Griner’s release that the Russians refused to negotiate a deal for Whelan.
Whelan, who called CNN exclusively from his remote penal colony in the hours following Griner’s release, said he hoped President Joe Biden and his administration “would do everything they could to get me home, regardless of the price they might have to pay at this point.”
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Administration officials have repeatedly committed to bringing Whelan home, and a senior administration official told CNN in mid-December that they have ideas about “new forms of offers” they are going to try with the Russians.
In mid-December, following Griner’s release, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that “with respect to the question of whether we’ve had engagement with the Russian Federation on the Whelan case, we will have an engagement with them this week.”
“I won’t say more about it because we’re trying to keep that in sensitive channels, but that’s the timetable. And we have had regular engagement of course along the way, and the next conversation at a high level will take place this week,” Sullivan said at a White House briefing at the time.
It is unclear if this is the engagement to which Price referenced Tuesday.
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CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Michael Conte contributed to this report.