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Biden administration officials meet virtually with Paul Whelan’s sister to discuss ‘next steps’

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

Biden administration officials met virtually on Monday with Elizabeth Whelan, whose brother Paul Whelan remains detained in Russia, to discuss “next steps of the strategy” to bring him home ahead of a planned “high-level” conversation between the United States and Russia.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that “with respect to the question of whether we’ve had engagement with the Russian Federation on the Whelan case, we will have an engagement with them this week.”

“I won’t say more about it because we’re trying to keep that in sensitive channels, but that’s the timetable. And we have had regular engagement,of course, along the way, and the next conversation at a high level will take place this week,” Sullivan said at a White House briefing.

Sullivan confirmed the virtual meeting Monday between Elizabeth Whelan and State Department and National Security Council officials, noting that he did not participate in this engagement but did join a call with President Joe Biden and Elizabeth Whelan last week.

Elizabeth Whelan described the 45-minute-long meeting Monday as a chance to regroup on her brother’s case, and said she was able to share her thoughts and ideas about moving forward to try to get him home. She said it was a working-level meeting with State Department and National Security Council officials, and that it had been arranged at the request of the administration.

“I am encouraged by their energy,” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN.

“There was a meeting today with the Whelan family to go through the next steps of the strategy,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN Monday. “But I think you can understand why we won’t detail those efforts publicly.”

Sullivan said that “the conversations with Paul Whelan’s family have been substantive.”

“They have had a number of very good questions and also a number of suggestions that they’ve put forward. And we have been working to figure out what it is going to take to ultimately secure his freedom and how we can go about getting that and being able to sit down with the Russians and work out a deal,” he said.

“We believe that there are plays that we can continue to try to run, things that we have had in motion that we are still working on, that could potentially lead to a positive result here,” Sullivan said, noting that the administration is “bound and determined to ensure that we work through a successful method of securing Paul Whelan’s release at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage. The administration was unable to secure his release when they brought detained WNBA star Brittney Griner home last week in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Multiple US officials said that the Russians refused to negotiate a deal for Paul Whelan, and CNN last week reported that Moscow repeatedly demanded a convicted murderer who is in German custody in exchange for the ex-Marine.

“This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none,” a US senior administration official said Thursday morning.

The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” they are going to try with the Russians in an effort to secure Paul Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN last week. Elizabeth Whelan said that details about those new offers were not shared with her.

“As President Biden said directly to the Whelan family, and as senior officials working on this case said directly to Paul, we have not forgotten him and we will continue to pursue every avenue for his release,” the State Department spokesperson said.

The Whelan family, including Paul himself, have expressed happiness at the release of two other wrongfully detained Americans — Griner last week and Trevor Reed in April. Griner is back in the United States, undergoing medical evaluations at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Her family and agent have pledged support for the Whelan family and other Americans detained abroad.

“It’s a win for America when our citizens are repatriated and are back at home with their families, but I have to say I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release. Especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up,” Paul Whelan told CNN Thursday when he called from his Russian prison camp.

A Biden administration official spoke to Paul Whelan on Thursday, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens told CNN’s Dana Bash Sunday that he had personally called Paul Whelan on Friday.

“I said, ‘Paul, you have the commitment of this president, the president’s focused, the Secretary of State’s focused, I’m certainly focused, and we’re gonna bring you home. And I reminded him, I said, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the Army, they always reminded you to keep the faith’ and I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re coming to get you,'” Carstens recounted.

He said he told Whelan “this was a case where it was either one or none.”

“We weren’t able to get you out of this go round. We could not get the deal with the Russians. But had we not made the deal, then Brittney would not have come home. There was no opportunity to bring you home at this time,” he told Whelan.

Carstens did not give details about the negotiation efforts to bring Whelan home, but said, “the options are always being evaluated.”

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Phil Mattingly and Donald Judd contributed to this report.

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