Escalating Tensions Between Russia and U.S. Imperil Wrongfully Imprisoned Americans

Family members fear for lives of former Marines

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April 24, 2021

The family members of two former Marines wrongfully imprisoned in Russia fear that escalating tensions between the Biden administration and the Putin regime may endanger the lives of detainees.

Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, two former Marines, have been imprisoned by Russia since 2018 and 2019, respectively, on what embassy authorities say are charges with scant evidence. Reed's family says the former Marine, who served as a presidential guard in the Obama administration, has been subjected to brutal conditions with little to no medical attention.

Joey Reed, the father of Trevor Reed, told the Washington Free Beacon he is alarmed by the direction of relations between Moscow and Washington and wants to see more public effort from the Biden administration to bring his son home.

"We're concerned about the heightened tensions between the two countries," Reed said. "We'd like for the administration to talk about Trevor more."

Though Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan brought the issue of Reed's and Whelan's detentions to the fore early on, they no longer make much mention of Reed and Whelan. Joey Reed said he was disheartened to see the Biden administration shift its focus to freeing imprisoned Russian dissident leader Alexei Navalny even as his son remained behind bars.

"It’s very, very depressing to Trevor and I'm sure to Paul that they never hear their name in the media from American voices," Reed said.

A State Department spokesman said the agency is committed to bringing Reed and Whelan home. The agency said it has maintained "private" lines of communication to free the men who have been "convicted without credible evidence."

"We continue to be seriously concerned over the treatment of U.S. citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed," the spokesman said. "They have been deprived of their freedom for far too long."

The ability to keep track of Reed and Whelan may also be complicated by growing tensions between the two countries. Ambassador John Sullivan, a Trump administration holdover, has long served as the point person for Reed and Whelan within Russia. Sullivan regularly visits Reed, and Whelan's family says he gives regular updates on Whelan's condition. Due to increased discord, the Biden administration called Sullivan back to the United States on Tuesday to consult with senior officials as the problems from Moscow grow. It is unclear when Sullivan will return to Russia.

Both families spoke to Sullivan's determination and effectiveness as an ambassador. David Whelan, Paul Whelan's brother, said Sullivan has played a huge role in assuaging the worries of his family. Alexis Mrachek, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said President Joe Biden's approach to the Russia issue—including bringing Sullivan home—may only make matters worse for Reed and Whelan.

"The Biden administration's recently imposed sanctions on Russia do not help Whelan's and Reed's situation, especially since Ambassador Sullivan just returned home for a while," Mrachek said. "Whelan and Reed are also not publicly on the radar of the Biden administration, which is concerning."

Russia moved Whelan to a labor camp after more than a year and a half without the ability to communicate with his family. David Whelan said he hopes the administration can use the ongoing crises as points to begin constructive engagement with Moscow on behalf of the two imprisoned Americans.

"The use of political capital on the big things I think helps to create the sort of relationship they need to have to have discussions where they can sweep in smaller issues such as returning arbitrary detainees like Paul and Trevor back to the states," Whelan said.

Biden has hinted at the prospect of a summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, which might allow for continued engagement regarding the detentions of Reed and Whelan. In one round of talks, Putin floated swapping Reed for Viktor Bout, a famed Russian arms trafficker held in a federal facility.

American Enterprise Institute fellow Elisabeth Braw said the situation with Whelan and Reed boils down to an uncomfortable truth—the Biden administration can only do so much during an unstable time.

"The question for the Biden administration is do they want to spend political capital on these two gentlemen," Braw said. "At the moment, it clearly seems like they're not willing to spend that capital because they want to spend it on areas they can make a bigger difference. ...That's an extremely unattractive choice for a Western government, but that's the reality today."