Russia’s arrest of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan on espionage charges represents a new flashpoint in an increasingly hostile relationship between Washington and Moscow.
Former officials and experts see Paul Whelan as a pawn in a larger geopolitical fight that has only intensified with the recent indictments of Russians by the United States. The Kremlin has accused Paul Whelan of spying but has offered few specifics about the circumstances of his arrest, the news of which broke on New Year’s Eve.
Since then, a curious picture has emerged in the media of a former Marine and avid traveler who built a network of contacts in Russia through social media and journeyed there several times since 2006.
Former officials say he does not fit the mold of someone recruited to spy on behalf of the U.S. More likely, they say, his detention was orchestrated in retribution for the guilty plea of Maria Butina, who admitted last month to being a Russian foreign agent infiltrating conservative organizations in the U.S. Some have suggested Russia could be setting the stage for a prisoner exchange for Butina, harkening back to the Soviet era.
Paul Whelan holds passports from three other countries, the United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland — all of which could work to assist him and potentially push for his release.
“I think at some point there must be a political solution to this to get him home,” said David Whelan.
Paul Whelan, who works as a security executive for Michigan-based automotive parts maker BorgWarner, had been in Russia since Dec. 22 to attend a friend’s wedding, his family said. Paul Whelan traveled to Russia a half-dozen times over the past decade and used the social networking site VKontakte to make contacts there. His brother described him as an avid traveler and not a “particular Russophile.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, said he was apprehended while on a “spy mission” in Moscow, but it has offered few details about the allegations or the circumstances of his arrest. Russian media reports, which remain unverified, have said Paul Whelan was arrested in his hotel room after being given a flash drive with information about a secret government department.
Paul Whelan has been held at the Lefortovo prison in pretrial detention and has not been allowed visitors since U.S. officials saw him last week, according to his brother. Vladimir Zherebenkov, his Russian defense lawyer, has said Paul Whelan maintains his innocence and will fight the charges, but has also suggested he could be part of an exchange.
Moscow formally charged Paul Whelan with espionage last Thursday, less than a month after Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to infiltrate powerful conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and agreed to cooperate with Justice Department prosecutors. Russia has denied knowledge of her, suggesting her arrest was politically motivated.
Spy swaps between Russia and Western countries are rare, but some did occur during the Cold War. Paul Whelan’s case echoes that of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, who was arrested and charged with spying in 1986 by the Soviet-era KGB days after the U.S. arrested a Soviet physicist at the United Nations. The Reagan administration ultimately negotiated for his release and later released the Soviet physicist as part of a broader deal.
More recently, in 2010, Washington transferred 10 accused “sleeper” spies to Moscow in exchange for four people accused of being double agents by Russia. That group included Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence official recruited by Britain as a spy in the 1990s who Moscow is accused of attempting to assassinate in March.
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