In this file photo taken on June 15, 2020 Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage, stands inside a defendants' cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow


  • Trump's ex-national security adviser said Russia appeared committed to releasing Paul Whelan in 2020
  • Robert O'Brien said the Russians abandoned the offer after Joe Biden won the 2020 election
  • Whelan's family was irked by Trump's refusal to make a deal with the Kremlin to secure the former Marine's release

An ex-national security adviser under former President Donald Trump said Russia was willing to release former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan and another imprisoned American to improve relations between the two countries.

Former national security adviser Robert O'Brien told The Hill that the Russians hinted at the possibility of freeing Whelan to improve ties between Washington and Moscow following a meeting in October 2020.

O'Brien said that he felt he got a commitment from Russian National Security Adviser Nikolai Patrushev to release Whelan and Trevor Reed, a former Marine also imprisoned in Russia, in exchange for setting up summits between the two countries.

The former Trump adviser said he met Patrushev in October 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland, but he added that they did not discuss a prisoner swap or the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

"Without getting into the details, there were further summit meetings the Russians wanted to have that would have required improvement in relations," O'Brien told the outlet. "And my position was, if you want to improve relations with us, you cannot keep Whelan and Reed."

But O'Brien said the Russians abandoned the deal after Democrat Joe Biden was projected to win the 2020 presidential election.

"Once we lost the election, the Russians lost all interest" in talking with the Trump administration, O'Brien said.

O'Brien's predecessor also confirmed that Whelan's release was offered by Russia.

Earlier this month, former national security adviser John Bolton revealed in an interview with CBS that Trump previously turned down an offer from Kremlin to trade Whelan with Bout.

Bolton said Trump didn't approve the deal because of Bout's crimes.

Bolton's revelation irked Whelan's family, who accused Trump of not appearing interested in the case.

Elizabeth Whelan, Paul's sister, told The Hill that Trump's refusal to make a deal with the Kremlin to release the former Marine was "a surprise and not a welcome one."

On Sunday, Trump confirmed that he turned down the Kremlin's offer to release Whelan for Bout.

The former president said on Truth Social that he wouldn't have made a "deal for a hundred people in exchange for someone that has killed untold numbers of people with his arms deals."

Trump insisted that he "would have gotten Paul out," without presenting any options.

Following the release of basketball player Brittney Griner from Russian detention after a prisoner swap for Bout, Republicans criticized the Biden administration for not securing Whelan's release.

But Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, said their commitment to securing Whelan's release from the Russians is "absolutely rock solid, intense."

Fifty-year-old former US Marine Paul Whelan has been held in a Moscow prison since he was arrested in December 2018 
Fifty-year-old former US Marine Paul Whelan has been held in a Moscow prison since he was arrested in December 2018  AFP / Dimitar DILKOFF