Why you should care
Because this spy game is further deteriorating the U.S.-Russia relationship.
On a cold December day last week, Paul Whelan was showing some friends around Moscow — one of his favorite international cities. Whelan was in the Russian capital to attend a friend’s wedding and, seeing as he’d been to the city several times before, the bride and groom asked him to play tour guide. As he told fellow wedding guests about the Kremlin that day, he never imagined he wouldn’t make it to the ceremony.
Whelan couldn’t attend the wedding because he was arrested Friday on charges of espionage, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said. FSB has offered no evidence that Whelan is a spy or any specific details about his detainment. But if he is convicted, he could face 10 to 20 years in prison. His family maintains his innocence. “There’s no way that Paul is a spy,” his twin brother, David Whelan told MSNBC. “Of all the people that I know, he would be most aware of the risks of getting sideways of the law in a foreign country.”
A former U.S. Marine and local law enforcement officer, Whelan, 48, is the director of global security for BorgWarner, an auto-parts manufacturer in Michigan. From 1994 to 2008, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and was deployed to Iraq twice but did not see combat. Whelan received a bad conduct discharge in 2008 for attempted larceny, but the Marine Corps released no further details about his case. Born in Canada to British parents, he is an American citizen who occasionally travels to Russia for both pleasure and business — though BorgWarner has no facilities in the country. A spokesperson for BorgWarner said the company believes Whelan was on a personal trip at the time of his arrest. Whelan is single, with no children, his brother has said.
Whelan’s arrest, experts suggest, could be connected to the case of Maria Butina.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. met with Whelan after the state Department requested consular access. At a news conference in Brazil, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said if the U.S. government learns that Whelan’s “detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return.”
Whelan has expressed a love for Russia and its culture on social media. When he first visited the country more than 10 years ago, he wrote on his website: “Having grown up during the Cold War, it was a dream of mine to visit Russia and meet some of the sneaky Russians who had kept the Western world at bay for so long!” Whelan had also been using a Russian social media platform called VKontakte (VK) for the past several years, according to a profile on the site under his name.
He posted sparingly on the Facebook-like platform, including an inauguration day missive: “GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” While he doesn’t speak much Russian, according to his brother, Whelan had written a few VK posts in the language, including “Merry Christmas” and another congratulating the Russian people for “Victory Day,” the anniversary of the Nazi surrender in 1945. Whelan’s last post on the social network read: “Next stop, Moscow … ”
National security experts cast doubt on the charges, especially because Whelan is a private citizen with no apparent connection to the CIA or espionage training. His arrest, experts suggest, could be connected to the case of Maria Butina, a Russian woman who recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as a covert foreign agent in the U.S. Butina attempted to infiltrate Republican political circles to influence U.S. policy on Russia before and after the 2016 presidential election. Although she took a plea deal, Butina maintains her innocence, and Russia considers her a political prisoner.
“Normally the Russians put out a story of what the person is alleged to have done — we have not heard that yet,” says former CIA deputy director and OZY columnist John McLaughlin. “If I had to bet right now, I would say the Russians have picked him up on some thin pretext, hoping to use him as a swap for someone we have, such as Maria Butina. Trump has seemed to yield to Putin’s persuasion in the past, and this may have made the Russian leader optimistic that he can work a deal.”
Some Russia experts have expressed concern for Whelan on Twitter. Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, demanded the country provides an explanation for Whelan’s arrest. Longtime Putin critic Bill Browder, who lobbied to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which denied U.S. visas to a number of Putin allies, called the arrest a “hostage situation.”
The arrest of American Paul Whelan in Moscow by the FSB as he was visiting Russia to attend a wedding looks increasingly like a hostage situation. All foreign travellers to Russia should beware that anything could happen. The US government should intervene decisively in this case https://t.co/0qK6Uwmz5s
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) January 1, 2019
While Pompeo made brief remarks, the White House has remained quiet on Whelan’s arrest. Even as the circumstances of Whelan’s detention remain largely mysterious, security experts warn that the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy to tackle yet another provocation from Russia.
Read more: John McLaughlin argues Russia needs more straight talk from the U.S.