U.S. Citizen Held in Moscow Not Likely a Spy

Arrest could be retaliation for U.S. conviction of Russian national in influence operation.

Paul Whelan, an American detained by Russian authorities and accused of espionage. (Photo courtesy of the Whelan family)
Paul Whelan, an American detained by Russian authorities and accused of espionage. (Photo courtesy of the Whelan family)

A former top CIA officer who served in the agency’s clandestine service for decades and spent time in Moscow says Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen held there on suspicion of espionage, would have been an unlikely candidate for spy operations in Russia given his background as a U.S. Marine and his work in security—which would have likely raised red flags with the Russian security services.

The Russian Federal Security Service announced on Monday that it had arrested Whelan on Dec. 28 while he was “in the course of carrying out espionage activities,” and that a criminal case has been opened against him.

A former Marine who served several tours of duty in Iraq as an active-duty reservist, Whelan currently works as the global security director for the automotive industry supplier BorgWarner. He is reported to have befriended Russian soldiers and had an active profile on the Russian social networking site VKontakte.

“There is almost a zero percent chance that Mr. Whelan was involved in espionage,” said the retired officer, John Sipher, who spent 28 years with the CIA, serving in Moscow in the 1990s and later running the agency’s Russian operations.

“The U.S. runs only the most critical cases in Russia using the best tradecraft available. We do not allow people without diplomatic immunity to operate in Moscow for exactly this reason,” he said.

Due to his background, Whelan would have been considered a person of interest by the Federal Security Service, the successor agency of the KGB, according to Daniel Hoffman, who served as CIA station chief in Moscow under the Obama administration.

“The FSB would have been tracking him and would have put him on their shelf with a view to using him later,” Hoffman said.

In multiple media reports, Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, has denied the espionage allegations.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan on Wednesday in the Lefortovo Detention Facility, where the former Marine is currently being held. A State Department spokesperson said Huntsman expressed his support for Whelan and offered the embassy’s assistance.

Whelan’s arrest came two weeks after Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. She was the first Russian national convicted of working to influence U.S. policy ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Some analysts believe Whelan’s arrest was a retaliatory move for Butina’s conviction.

If this is the case, “it suggests that the Kremlin takes the Butina arrest seriously and fears that she has damaging information to tell the FBI. The Kremlin is likely looking to put pressure on the Trump administration to do a spy swap or begin negotiations,” said Sipher, the former senior intelligence officer.

Hoffman noted that it was likely that Whelan would have begun his application for a Russian visa before Butina pleaded guilty, so Russian authorities would have known in advance about his travel plans. Whelan traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding, his family members told reporters.

In the past, U.S. citizens arrested on suspicion of espionage have usually been expelled and banned from the country. In 2013, Ryan Fogle, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was detained for allegedly trying to recruit a Russian security officer.

But Russia’s almost cartoonish handling of the case raised doubts about the allegations. Authorities paraded Fogle in front of cameras wearing a blond wig on his way to detention. They released a photo later of his alleged spy kit that included a compass, two pairs of sunglasses, and a pocket map of Moscow.

Released after a night in detention, Fogle was declared persona non grata and asked to leave the country.

What makes Whelan’s arrest unusual is Moscow’s tight-lipped response so far, said Mark Galeotti, a fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague who has written extensively about the Russian military and security services.

“My suspicion is the FSB genuinely thought that it had got an American spy, and there’s still some debate behind the scenes with what to do,” Galeotti said. “We never get to see the debate, but the very pause shows that there is a debate.” 

While the Russian security services have a formidable reputation, Galeotti noted that they can sometimes stray into paranoia.

The arrest was announced on New Year’s Eve, the biggest national holiday on the Russian calendar, analogous to Christmas in other parts of the Christian world. Hoffman noted that this gives the Russian authorities an excuse to drag their heels on Whelan’s case.

“The longer he stays in prison, the more of a pressure point they enjoy,” he said.

If convicted in Russia, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison. Russia amended its law on espionage in 2012, expanding the definition for such charges.

During his annual press conference on Dec. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by a reporter from the state-funded channel RT whether foreign nationals would be arrested in Russia “under far-fetched pretexts and exchanged.”

Putin responded: “We will respond if certain people violate Russian legislation, regardless of their national and state affiliation. But we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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