Paul spoke to our parents over the weekend. His resilience is shaken. Paul has spent the last 1,570 days trying to maintain hope. His struggles have been apparent in his letters and in his phone calls over the years. But now, Paul seems rattled like never before, understandably apprehensive that the U.S. government will choose not to bring him home again, now that there is another American wrongfully detained by the Kremlin.
The State Department has tried to put a positive spin on Paul's calamity. They acknowledge the effort he takes to be supportive of other hostages' freedom. Ambassador Carstens, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, spoke to a number of media outlets last week and put a brave face on Paul's endurance.
Ambassador Carstens: "[Last December,] Paul Whelan called from Russia. And I spent 30 minutes on the phone saying, 'hey, Paul, here's what happened, here's why the President felt he had to make these decisions.' Essentially, Paul said, 'Look, I wish I was there with her, but I understand.' And he said this, he said, 'Roger, this is a great day for Brittney Griner, it's a great day for Brittney Griner's family, and it's a great day for the United States of America.'" (NPR Interview, 4/13/2023: 02:49)
But Paul shouldn't be getting consolation phone calls. He should be home. We hope that he will continue to survive until he is. But the U.S. government is making it harder each time it makes choices to leave him there and Paul is showing the strain. On Friday, Paul told our parents he feels as though the U.S. government has abandoned him.
We understand completely how he feels. We have heard that there is lobbying to encourage the White House and State Department to divert resources, currently applied to Paul's case, away from it. We don't have the ability to substantiate who or what—perhaps one of you are able to do that—but it gibes with our concern that, for a fourth time, the U.S. government might consider making a decision that leaves Paul in Russia.
Some other families of wrongfully detained Americans are starting to wonder about these sorts of decisions too. The Bring Our Families Campaign is concerned that the White House and State Department are prioritizing cases where detainees have, or have the resources to generate, notoriety:
Many of our families have been waiting for a determination of wrongful designation and a phone call or meeting with the President for years," Franks said in a statement Wednesday. (CBS News, 4/12/2023) "It was heartbreaking to see once again that an Administration that talks a lot about equity chose to neglect our non-famous hostages."
The White House and State Department have repeatedly said that Paul's case is the highest priority. Ambassador Carstens has noted that the U.S. government does not prioritize between wrongful detention cases, so they must all be the highest priority. (CNN, 4/12/2023) But choices—to give concessions in one case and not in another—suggest that there is some prioritization going on. Some families get phone calls from the President. Some detainees are rapidly considered for wrongful detention.
We judge the Kremlin by its actions: hostage takers, criminals, extortionists. We should also judge the White House by the choices it makes. The State Department has tried to distinguish Paul's case from Mr. Gershkovich's but the similarities are undeniable: two Americans, in Russia for legitimate reasons, charged with espionage by the Russian state security services, allegedly caught "red-handed", held in Lefortovo. The U.S. government has stated that both cases involve false charges. The U.S. government has labeled both "wrongfully detained."
They have also claimed that Paul's case is harder to resolve.
Steve Inskeep, NPR: What makes Whelan's case harder?
Ambassador Carstens: To me, it's always the Russians...
SI: ... But I mean it was the Russians in the other cases and you were able to get people out. What makes Whelan harder?"
AC: The Russians have tried to fashion him into being a spy, which he is not. They hold the key to the jail cell. The other side always does.
But that's not an answer, not any more. The U.S. government had one case that was hard to solve. Now they have two cases, having failed both at securing Paul's release and deterring Mr. Gershkovich's arrest. These are the only two American citizens designated "wrongfully detained" in Russia, as far as I'm aware. All we have from the U.S. government are more words.
Our sister, Elizabeth, has been in regular contact with people in the State Department and the National Security Advisor's staff for years. We remained hopeful last December when National Security Advisor Sullivan said that he felt securing Paul's release was "a challenge that [the White House] believe[s] we are up to." (White House Briefing, 12/12/2022) Secretary of State Blinken has stated repeatedly since then that they have made the Kremlin a significant or substantial offer.
But Elizabeth has not seen any creative strategies. Instead, she has seen the U.S. government create arbitrary red lines it won't cross in Paul's case. Then it crosses those lines, but brings home other wrongful detainees from Russia and leaves Paul behind. The Department of Justice inhibits resolutions of some wrongful detention cases and then the Attorney General says "the United States will do everything in its power to" free Mr. Gershkovich. Apparently, the U.S. is waiting for the Kremlin to come up with "creative approaches."
As Elizabeth says, "The U.S. government has vowed to use whatever resources it takes to get him home. Does this not beg the question: if there are resources that can be used to get an American out of Russia, why haven't they been used for my brother Paul?" (Facebook video, 4/13/2023)
Secretary Blinken said the U.S. government would "increase the pressure and increase the penalties" on the Kremlin. (Press availability, 4/5/2023) When? They have been waiting for at least 4 months—Paul might argue years—to get a response from the Kremlin for their substantial offer. What are they waiting for? How many more days does Paul have to suffer until the U.S. acts just as decisively to increase pressure and resolve these cases as it does to recognize them as wrongful detentions?
We had hoped that the efforts of the Michigan Congressional delegation might bear some fruit. Surely Congress carries some weight with the White House in these sorts of situations. We're so grateful for the Congressional effort, introducing 6 resolutions calling for Paul's release in the past 4+ years. But the resolutions seem to be falling on deaf ears both in the Kremlin and the White House.
Elizabeth is running out of resources. She is going to pause her interactions with the State and National Security staff until they stop wasting her time and come up with something more than thoughts and prayers. It is unfair and unreasonable to put the burden on wrongful detainee families to grab the White House's attention, to do the creative work, to ensure that the different parts of the government are communicating clearly and working effectively to bring Paul home. There is a literal cost to families to do this advocacy.
It is the U.S. government's duty to bring Paul home. As Senator Stabenow said last week, "It's Paul's turn!" If the U.S. government is pulling its punches at the expense of some of its citizens. it should stop doing so. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has noted that, until Mr. Gershkovich is tried and convicted, his exchange or release will not be considered. (TASS, 4/13/2023) That trial may not happen for 18 months, based on the experience of Paul and other recent espionage cases in Russia. It is a window of opportunity that we hope the U.S. government won't waste to bring home Paul.