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Biden’s Putin policy tested as jailed Americans bid to go home

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia, listens to his lawyers while standing inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on Jan. 22, 2019. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Two former U.S. Marines imprisoned in Russia are likely to seek transfers to the U.S. to serve their sentences, an early test of whether the Kremlin is ready to respond to President Joe Biden’s policy of re-engagement.

Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years for spying last year, is expected to submit the request this month, according to his defense team. Trevor Reed, who’s serving nine years for assaulting two police officers, may also apply to be sent to the U.S., said his lawyer, Sergei Nikitenkov.

“This would be a win for all involved,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “It was clearly an understanding reached in Geneva.”

While Biden raised the cases at his Geneva summit with President Vladimir Putin in June, the U.S. hasn’t publicly confirmed any understanding or a deal on the issue. Biden told reporters at the summit that “I’m not going to walk away” from Whelan, 51, and Reed, 30, who deny wrongdoing.

The State Department said it “remains focused on securing the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed,” while declining to comment further. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow declined to comment.

A return home would mark the first tangible result of Biden’s efforts to stabilize ties with Russia in the face of domestic criticism. The former Cold War foes have started talks on arms control and cybersecurity but they’re not expected to yield quick breakthroughs.

U.S. officials engaged with the case advised Whelan to seek a transfer, according to three people in Moscow familiar with the matter. The Biden administration is aware of Whelan’s and Reed’s ability to file a formal request to serve their sentences in the U.S., said one U.S. official.

Reed’s lawyer, Nikitenkov, said he’s “sure of a positive outcome because U.S. and Russian officials have expressed a common interest” in resolving the issue.

Russia made no visible progress on past efforts to negotiate a swap of Whelan and Reed for two Russians jailed in the U.S., Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko, according to four people in Moscow familiar with the matter.

Still, it’s considering sending Whelan home and the decision now rests with Putin, two of them said.

Bout, an arms dealer dubbed “the merchant of death,” is serving a 25-year sentence he received in 2012 for plotting to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist organization. Yaroshenko, a pilot, was jailed in 2011 for 20 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Both were seized in sting operations, Bout in Thailand and Yaroshenko in Liberia, and brought to the U.S. for trial.

The U.S. insists Whelan and Reed were unfairly convicted unlike Bout, 54, and Yaroshenko, 52.

In comparison to Donald Trump, the Biden administration has been “more outspoken” about Whelan’s fate and committed to his release as well as that of other imprisoned Americans, David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said by phone. “All of that has been a very different feeling,” he said.

Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov urged Washington July 28 to look for “mutually acceptable” solutions “on the basis of existing legal mechanisms.”

Relations between Moscow and Washington have sunk to the lowest in decades over alleged Kremlin election meddling and escalating U.S. sanctions against Russia. The two sides are now also trying to resolve another source of friction over the number of diplomats working in each other’s embassies.


© 2021 Bloomberg L.P
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