Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019.
Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow, Russia, on August 23, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden administration believes the Russian government will continue to engage with the United States on the issue of Russian and US nationals detained in each others’ country, a senior administration official told CNN.

Moscow knows that the two sides will reach “a mutually acceptable arrangement if they keep talking to us,” the official said.

The official’s comments came as Brittney Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout. Griner, a WNBA basketball player, was imprisoned in Russia and convicted of drug smuggling after being caught with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage earlier this year. Bout, a convicted arms dealer, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans.

Another American, Paul Whelan, remains in Russian custody. Whelan, a former marine who is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.

“We have shown an openness to talk about that which is actually available to us and gotten only in response a demand for something not available to us,” the senior Biden administration official said, reiterating that the Russians refused what had been offered to secure the release of Whelan. 

CNN previously reported that convicted Russian murderer Vadim Krasikov, who is in German custody, was one of Moscow’s requests, and the official did not rule out that his release had been a continued request.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but was “greatly disappointed” that more had not been done to secure his release.

War-related demands: Demands related to the war in Ukraine, however, did not come up in the negotiations to secure Griner’s release and attempt to secure Whelan’s, the official said, adding that the US would not makes concessions on that front.

“We’ve obviously thought about why that might be the case” that the Russians didn’t float it, the official said, “and I think we credit it to the fact that we’ve been so crystal clear, so consistent, that it is not for us to negotiate how that horrific situation gets resolved.”

“If it were raised, of course, it is not for bargaining. Another country’s future is not for bargaining and the defense of democracy against autocracy is not for bargaining,” the official said.

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