Who Is Paul Whelan, The Ex-Marine Left Behind In The Brittney Griner Swap?

In a two-way prisoner swap in December 2022, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to CNN. Though Griner's release was greeted as good news — Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, commented (via ESPN), "Today my family is whole" — one aspect of the nearly year-long saga remains unresolved: former Marine Paul Whelan (pictured). He is an American citizen serving a 16-year jail sentence in Russia on suspicion of spying and was left out of the deal. This raised questions, as both Griner and Whelan were included in the Biden administration swap offer, as ESPN goes on to note.

On Griner's release in exchange for convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout without Whelan, Whelan's brother, David Whelan, said (via the Associated Press), "The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen." Bout's attorney Alexei Tarasov explained on Russian television that the Russians looked for a one-for-one swap, not a two-for-one swap, which was the Americans' offer. Tarasov said (via BBC News), "Really, an exchange should be equal. If we exchange one person, we should exchange him for one person, not for two."

Paul Whelan is a citizen of four different countries

According to BBC News, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is a citizen of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and the Irish Republic. Born to British parents in Canada, Whelan moved to the U.S. as a child. In 2008, Whelan, with a background in IT, was released from the Marines on larceny-related charges. In 2018, Whelan was in Russia, a country he had visited several times in the past, when he was arrested on suspicion of spying. Uncorroborated reports at that time claimed Whelan received digital classified information on Russian intelligence officers, as BBC News explains. It was at first believed that Whelan was taken into custody in Russia in hopes of swapping Whalen for Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, who was deported from the U.S. to Russia in 2019, as the outlet goes on to report. 

In 2020, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison, at which time the U.S. government classified Whelan as wrongfully detained, according to NBC 5 Chicago.  On the news that Whelan would not return home, his brother David (pictured) said that though the Whelan family did not begrudge Griner her freedom, in their view, the U.S. government should be assertive in their efforts to bring Whelan home. "It's clear that the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government will take for Paul Whelan. And so Paul will remain a prisoner until that changes," David Whelan said (per BBC News)

Russia is treating Whelan's case differently, according to the Biden administration

Speaking from the Oval Office, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the prisoner exchange was complete, as Sports Illustrated reports. Otherwise, little is known as to how and why Paul Whelan was left out of the deal. According to the outlet, Biden said, "Sadly and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we will not give up."

Griner, of the WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury, plays for the Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, in the WNBA off-season. After cannabis oil and a vape cartridge were found in her luggage at a Moscow airport, she was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison, as ESPN explains. For his part, Viktor Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death," was serving a 25-year prison sentence in America for arms trafficking, as CNN goes on to explain.