Curious picture emerges of American arrested on espionage charges in Russia

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.

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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.

“It reeks of a tit-for-tat,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense in the Obama administration and fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Paul  Whelan’s family has vehemently denied the espionage charge, which carries up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted.

“It’s really hard to believe that it has anything to do with Paul,” David Whelan, his twin brother, told The Hill in a phone interview. “I am absolutely 100 percent sure he is not a spy.”

Trump administration officials have said little publicly beyond confirming that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and other embassy officials met with Paul Whelan in Russia’s Lefortovo Detention Facility last Wednesday.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation Trump to meet with top North Korean official to discuss 'fully verified' denuclearization MORE said that the administration would “demand his immediate return” if Paul Whelan’s arrest is found to be inappropriate.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE, who has been criticized for his attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, addressed the matter briefly Sunday, telling reporters, “We’re looking into that.”

Some lawmakers have sought details on Paul Whelan.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE’s (R-Fla.) office confirmed it reached out to the Whelan family, and David Whelan said his relatives have been in contact with other legislators in Washington.

Both the House and Senate Intelligence committees declined to comment on whether they had requested more information or briefings from the administration on Paul Whelan’s arrest.

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.

On Wednesday, a Kremlin spokesman denied that Paul Whelan is being used as a pawn “in a diplomatic game.”

“Russia conducts counterintelligence activity against those who are suspected of espionage, this is done on a regular basis,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Moscow’s TASS news agency.

Nonetheless, the scarce details surrounding his case have led some to conclude otherwise. Paul Whelan was discharged by the Marines for bad conduct in 2008 after being convicted at a special court-martial on charges related to larceny, which some have said would effectively disqualify him from being recruited as a spy for the U.S. government.

“It would be a surprise if he turned out to be a CIA agent,” said Jim Lewis, a former State Department official.

“He certainly looks like a pawn, and the lack of information on the Russian side reinforces that, but you can never be sure in these cases,” added Lewis, who is now senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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.

Paul Whelan’s arrest follows a series of punitive actions by the U.S. to admonish Russian intelligence services. This includes the indictment of a dozen GRU agents for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and U.S. election infrastructure in connection with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation.

“In some ways there’s a little bit of a grudge match here, and that’s probably a lot of what’s driving the Russians to hold this guy as a spy,” said Lewis.