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American Held in Moscow Says Arrest Is Retaliation for Russia Sanctions

Paul Whelan’s letters home only deepen the mystery surrounding his detention.

Excerpts of a letter by Paul Whelan, seen in Moscow on March 14, and a note transcribed by his lawyer.
Excerpts of a letter by Paul Whelan, seen in Moscow on March 14, and a note transcribed by his lawyer. Foreign Policy illustration/Vladimir Gerdo/TASS via Getty Images

Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held in Moscow on suspicion of espionage, believes his arrest may be President Vladimir Putin’s way of retaliating against the United States for sanctions it imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea, according to letters sent to his family via his legal team in Moscow.

Whelan raised the issue in two letters home since he was detained more than four months ago, but the references are cryptic and fail to make clear why Russia would choose him or the company he worked for as targets for its retaliation. The Whelan family lawyer, Ryan Fayhee, shared the letters with Foreign Policy.

The notes deepen the mystery around Whelan’s ongoing detention. Some former U.S. officials said the comments further discredit Russia’s claim that it had legitimate cause to arrest Whelan. Others cautioned against taking the remarks at face value, pointing out that Russian security services could have been controlling and possibly dictating what Whelan said.

Russian authorities arrested Whelan in late December and continue to hold him at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison but have offered no evidence to support allegations of spying.

“This is 100% work related. Ask BW for support. Sanction retaliation,” Whelan said in a message received by his family on March 26. BW appears to be shorthand for BorgWarner, the Michigan-based auto parts manufacturer where Whelan worked as a global security director.

The letter was dictated by Whelan at a meeting in prison with his legal team and transcribed by one of his defense lawyers who speaks English. The lawyer, Olga Karlova, then photographed the note and sent it via email to Whelan’s twin brother, David, who lives in Canada.

In the letter, Whelan directs his family to contact his employer, BorgWarner: “[C]ompany BW does business with here, recently had to reorganize due to sanctions. A person was excluded from that company, get name and give that to [U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman.” He also advises his family to contact the company’s chief legal office and its director of trade compliance.

David Whelan told Foreign Policy in a phone interview that the family takes every piece of information that doesn’t come directly from Whelan with a grain of salt. But he added that notes previously transcribed by the translator had proved to be accurate.

“We’re not sure if he’s not allowed to say certain things or if he thinks he’s being clear,” he said.

To verify the remarks, David Whelan asked a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to question his brother during a consular visit about issues raised in the letter. Whelan’s responses appeared to reinforce the things he wrote.

In a reply dated April 7, Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, asked where Whelan received his information and whether he thinks BorgWarner is involved specifically.

Whelan responded with a new letter, this time in his own handwriting, saying it “came from people here. Sanctioned friends with locals, who look for big fish and now know their mistake.” He reiterated that he doesn’t think BorgWarner was targeted specifically and that he believed Russian authorities may have been looking to go after a U.S. company more generally. A photograph of the letter was received by Whelan’s brother on April 10.

In the same note, Whelan, who had flown to Moscow late December to attend a friend’s wedding, said his Russian visa was paid for by his company. In a statement to Foreign Policy, a BorgWarner spokesperson said: “As a general policy, BorgWarner does not comment on the travel of its employees. We will reiterate that Paul was not traveling on company business.”

Whelan’s brother said the family has no direct contact with the company. “We don’t know how they are taking this information or what they are doing about it,” he said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the case or claims made in Whelan’s notes.

“I think someone who is in prison, who is being held by the Russians, can be forced to say anything,” said Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat who helped craft the U.S. response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine as State Department sanctions coordinator.

“It does look like this guy was picked up as trade bait, rather than legitimately,” he said.

Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, visited Whelan in prison last Tuesday. In a statement posted on Twitter, a spokesperson for the embassy said the ambassador and Whelan had been prevented from talking about “anything that actually matters” and that Russian officials were still preventing Whelan from signing a power of attorney that would enable his family to take care of his affairs in the United States.

“Consular access without being able to speak openly is frankly a joke. We take seriously our responsibilities to U.S. citizens. Stop playing games!” the spokesperson tweeted.

At a hearing on Russia in the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Wednesday, Chairman Eliot Engel said, “Russia continues to hold Paul Whelan, an American citizen, under false charges of espionage. Russia is denying him his basic human rights and has been dragging its feet every step of the way.”

Richard Nephew, the former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department, said that if the Russian authorities had sought to make a statement regarding sanctions, there were other Western companies in Russia with higher profiles that could have been targeted.

“If you’re picking targets for a hostage taking, dealing with sanctions, and you’re Vladimir Putin, no offense but you’re not picking this guy or this company,” he said.

When asked by Foreign Policy about the claims made in the letters, Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, said Whelan would be under intense scrutiny by his jailers.

“I would say a high level of confidence that the FSB [Russia’s domestic security service] tracked every word that was written or spoken and medium to high level of confidence that they dictated this,” he said.

Similarly, Steven Hall, a former chief of Russia operations for the CIA, said Russian authorities could get Whelan to say or write anything they wanted. “They can, at any point, walk into his cell and say, look, you’re going to spend your next 30 years in a tuberculosis-ridden prison if you don’t do or say this,” he said.

But if the Russian security services did plant the idea that Whelan was detained in a bid to lash out against U.S. sanctions, it would discredit their claim that he was caught spying.

In 2014, President Barack Obama’s administration placed sanctions on a number of Russian defense companies as well as members of Putin’s inner circle over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in fomenting war in eastern Ukraine.

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told reporters in January that Whelan has been handed a USB drive that he thought contained photographs from a previous trip to Russia. Instead, the drive held Russian state secrets, Zerebenkov said.

It was the only hint to have surfaced so far about the kind of case Russian authorities might be preparing against Whelan.

Hall said the alleged incident sounded like a setup by the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. But the motive of Russian authorities remains unclear.

“The question is … what’s their end game? Why did they do it?” Hall said. “Was it [that] they just wanted to send a message to the United States that if relations continue to deteriorate, Americans citizens are going to be at risk in Moscow?”

A previous version of this story misstated the role of Paul Whelan’s lawyer Olga Karlova and the town where David Whelan lives. 

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

Tag: Russia

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