The US envoy to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has made a direct appeal to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to release two US citizens who are currently detained in Russia. During a UN Security Council meeting on Monday, Thomas-Greenfield pushed Russia to free former US Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. She accused Moscow of using the men as “political bargaining chips” and “human pawns”. The ambassador added that using people in this way is a “strategy of weakness” and not the actions of a responsible country.
The US administration has formally designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained”. Russia arrested him in late March on accusations of espionage. The Wall Street Journal and press freedom groups have dismissed the allegations as baseless, and Washington has repeatedly called on Moscow to release the journalist. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges that the US also rejects as false.
Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, was present in the UN Security Council chamber on Monday, and Thomas-Greenfield urged Lavrov to “look into her eyes and see her suffering”. She said: “I want you to see what it’s like to miss your brother for four years. To know he is locked up, in a Russian penal colony, simply because you want to use him for your own ends.” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan later praised Elizabeth Whelan’s remarks at a White House press briefing, calling her an “incredible voice for all of us who are outraged by the practice of wrongful detention”.
Late last year, Russia released US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained in Moscow last year on drug possession charges, as part of a prisoner swap that did not include Whelan, raising concerns about his fate. The relationship between Washington and Moscow has deteriorated following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, and the detention of Griner and other US citizens has added to those tensions.
On Sunday, Russia accused the US authorities of denying visas to journalists who wanted to cover Lavrov’s trip to New York, and Lavrov suggested that Moscow would take retaliatory measures. “A country that calls itself the strongest, smartest, free and fair country has chickened out and done something stupid by showing what its sworn assurances about protecting freedom of speech and access to information are really worth,” he said before leaving the Russian capital. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov added that his country “will find ways to respond to this, so that the Americans will remember for a long time not to do this”. The US Department of State did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press news agency about the claim of refused visas.