US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone on Wednesday with American Paul Whelan, who is being held in a remote prison camp in Russia, a source familiar told CNN.
The top US diplomat told Whelan to “keep the faith and we’re doing everything we can to bring you home as soon as possible,” the source said of the call. This the second time Blinken has spoken to Whelan, who has been detained in Russia for more than four years, the source said. The other call between Whelan and Blinken happened on December 30, another source familiar told CNN.
Whelan, who is deemed wrongly detained by the US government, is able to make calls from his prison camp in Mordovia, but the source would not get into further details about how the call to Blinken came about.
Paul Whelan told his parents that “he was able to have a long, frank conversation with Secretary Blinken,” his brother David Whelan told CNN Wednesday. David Whelan did not have further details about the call.
“I think that Secretary Blinken has obviously sent a message and that message is for Paul and for our family, that the US government is continuing to advocate for Paul and his release,” David Whelan said later on CNN’s “The Lead.”
“I think it’s also a message for the Kremlin that the US government hasn’t let up and in fact, their lead foreign policy person is willing to call a prisoner, which is, I think, astounding,” he added.
The conversation comes as the Biden administration continues to reiterate to Russia the serious proposal that they put on the table for Whelan’s release more than eight months ago. Russia has not responded in a substantive way, two administration officials told CNN.
Despite the Whelan proposal “absolutely” still being one that the United States considers a live offer, explained one senior administration official, the lack of a substantive Russian response – along with the wrongful detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich earlier this year – has forced the US to continue efforts to search for another offer to put on the table.
The senior administration official said that it “remains a necessity that we figure out how to resolve this.”
“If we can’t make it happen based on what’s available to us now, we’ll need to figure out what that takes so we can bring our people home,” the official said.
The Biden administration continues to scour the globe for offers that could entice Russia to release both of the wrongfully detained Americans, as CNN reported earlier this year. The US does not currently have any high-level Russian spies in its custody, current and former US officials say, driving the need to turn to allies for help.
Elizabeth Whelan told CNN last week that she hoped that efforts to secure her brother’s release would move more quickly.
“This glacial pace – I’m not sure that we are yet at the point where it can be said that everything has been done to try to get Paul home,” she said.
“As Paul’s sister, I feel this sense of urgency and frustration very deeply. I don’t want to make it sound as if people don’t care, because they definitely do. But what is needed is a heightened awareness of the fact that time may be running out,” she said. “We do not know that the Russians will continue to discuss how to do an exchange or whatever it might be for Paul, into the future.”
David Whelan also said the family has begun to come to terms with the fact that his brother may have to serve out his full prison sentence of 16 years.
“I think we are now at a point where we’re resolved that it could be 2034 before Paul’s home,” he said. “I don’t think that there’s any reason to think that what the US government is doing right now is going to lead to Paul’s immediate release or even release as soon as possible.”
“I think we are focusing now that he may have to do his 16 years and the better that we are able to come to grips with that, the more I think we’ll be able to survive it and help him to survive it,” David Whelan said.
In an exclusive phone call to CNN in May, Whelan said he was confident that his case is a priority for the US government but wishes it could be resolved faster. He also expressed concerns he could be left behind again if the US secures Gershkovich’s release.
“That’s an extreme worry for me and my family,” he said at the time.
The US was unable to secure Whelan’s release in prisoner swaps that brought home two other wrongfully detained Americans last year: Trevor Reed in April and Brittney Griner in December.
However, Whelan said in May that he had more confidence in the US efforts to get him home than he did when he spoke to CNN in December following Griner’s release.
“I have been told that I won’t be left behind, and I have been told that although Evan’s case is a priority, mine is also a priority, and people are cognizant of the fact that this is having an extremely negative impact on me and my family. And I’m told that the government is working tirelessly to get me out of here and to get me home so they can then focus effort on Evan and his case,” Whelan said.
“There will be an end to this, and I hope it’s coming sooner than later, but it is depressing on a daily basis going through this,” he said in May.
This story has been updated with additional details.