WASHINGTON – President Biden on Friday met with family members of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, two Americans imprisoned in Russia who have been freed by the United States trying to negotiate with Moscow amid tensions relations were tainted because of the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Biden spoke with Elizabeth, Mr. Whelan’s sister, and then with Mrs. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, to discuss his “continued commitment” in the bringing both Americans home.
It was Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with both families, although he spoke to them by phone this summer. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, also attended Friday’s sessions.
The meetings reflect the White House’s attempt to show compassion for Griner and Whelan, even as some critics say Biden hasn’t done enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the two. American.
The Biden Administration offered in June for release a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Mrs. Griner and Mr. Whelan. Bout was serving a federal prison sentence for agreeing to sell weapons to a Colombian rebel group, then designated a terrorist organization by the United States, that he believed would be used against American troops.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Russia had yet to respond to the request in a press conference earlier on Friday. He added that authorities have kept in touch with family members of both detainees throughout the process.
“We have made a serious offer to bring Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan home,” Mr. Kirby said. “The Russians did not respond to that offer. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t negotiated yet and we’re still not trying.”
The negotiations are complicated by the extremely tense relationship between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine, to which the US is providing billions of dollars in military aid to fend off Russian aggression.
Ms Griner, a WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested after landing in February at an airport in the Moscow region, where Russian authorities said they found two vape boxes containing hash oil. in her luggage. After she pleaded guiltya Russian court convicted her last month and sentenced her to nine years in prison.
Mr. Whelan, a former US Marine who is working as corporate security executive, arrested in December 2018 in a Moscow hotel room after receiving a flash drive that investigators said contained classified information. He was sentenced in June 2020 to a sentence of 16 years in prison.
The Biden administration has classified both Griner and Whelan as “wrongfully detained” and assigned their cases to the hostage affairs office.