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Paul Whelan tells CNN he has ‘a bit of a concern’ arrest of soldier in Russia could complicate his case

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — Paul Whelan, an American detained in Russia, expressed renewed optimism about US efforts to secure his release in a call with CNN on Wednesday, but acknowledged “a bit of a concern” that the recent arrest of a US soldier in Russia could complicate matters.

Whelan, who has been detained more than five years in Russia and is designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department, said he was “broadly” aware of the arrest after being informed by his parents but did not know any details.

US Staff Sgt. Gordon Black traveled to Russia without permission from the US military to visit his girlfriend, his mother said.  He was arrested in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok last week on charges of theft. A court ordered him to remain in pre-trial detention until July 2. The US has not been granted consular access to see him.

Whelan said that he had “a bit of a concern” that if Black were designated as wrongfully detained, it could set back negotiations for his own release and that of detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

The State Department has not yet made that determination in Black’s case, and it is often a lengthy process.

“This latest arrest will complicate my situation if that person is declared wrongfully detained,” he told CNN, explaining that when Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner were arrested, “that complicated things.” Reed and Griner were both designated as wrongfully detained by the State Department and later freed in prisoner swaps with Russia. US officials said that Russia refused to include Whelan in either of those swaps.

“Unfortunately, if this gentleman is declared wrongfully detained, it will sort of start negotiations for Evan and I all over again, because then there’ll be the three of us. This is one of the problems that we’ve had in the past. They were negotiating for me, and then it was Trevor and me, and then it was Brittney and me. And now it’s Evan and me. And every time they’ve negotiated, it’s always been starting fresh when there’s another person involved. So yeah, it is a bit of a concern,” he explained.

Still, Whelan sounded more positive about the US’ efforts to secure his release than in his past conversations with CNN.

In the call from his remote prison camp in Mordovia Wednesday, Whelan explained that in December, around the anniversary of his detention, “I was pretty depressed.”

“It had been five years. Nothing seemed to be happening. Proposals made weren’t honored by the Russians. The Russians didn’t seem to make proposals of their own that made sense. And I was quite depressed that there hadn’t been enough movement and that there hadn’t been enough done. Since then, I’ve had several phone calls and spoken to several high-level people who are assuring me that they’re doing everything that they can do,” he said.

“I know that there are ongoing negotiations, proposals have been made. It’s a concern that it has gone on this long, but I’m hoping that we’re near the end, that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t just another train coming at me, as I like to say,” he said.

The Biden administration has put forward several “significant” proposals to the Russians for Whelan. One was presented and rejected in late November to try to bring home both Whelan and Gershkovich, who is also designated as wrongfully detained. US officials have consistently said that bringing home Whelan and Gershkovich is a top priority.

“Paul has shown tremendous resilience in the face of difficult circumstances,” a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday. “Russia should release him immediately.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Whelan in mid-February – at least the third time the top US diplomat has spoken by phone with the ex-Marine. The two also spoke in August 2023 and December 2022.

“I’ve been reassured by the State Department that they’ve got everyone working on this that they can and they’re doing everything that they can to get this resolved. That said, you know, I’ve made many requests to speak to the president, and I’d like to speak to people in the top echelon to ensure that they realize what the situation is and that, you know, I am being held hostage. I haven’t done anything. And I really need their help to resolve this,” he explained.

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