Paul Whelan, a citizen of four nations including the U.S. and Britain, was arrested in Russia last month on charges of espionage and now sits in solitary confinement in a Moscow prison. He could serve up to 20 years if convicted. Is Whelan a spy, or is Russia using him as a pawn as a result of escalating tensions with the United States? Here’s what we know.
American intelligence officials seem to agree that Whelan's associations with Russia were unusual. The former Marine and current security chief of an auto parts manufacturer called BorgWarner has operated an account on Vkontakte, Russia’s largest social media platform, for about 10 years, according to the New York Times. He appears to have social media relationships with numerous nonpolitical Russians, and he has visited Russia since 2006.
On his Vkontakte account, Whelan posted in support of President Donald Trump — “GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” He also joked about giving Sarah Palin to Russia and mourned the death of his pet cat, Mittens.
Russian news agencies report Whelan was arrested in a hotel room moments after allegedly receiving a USB stick said to contain the names of people who worked for a Russian security agency. Russian authorities have not commented on the specific allegations, according to the Washington Post. He will be held for two months pre-trial, as is standard in Russia. Whelan’s family has denied the allegations, and his twin brother said he was only in Russia to attend a wedding.
Current and former intelligence officials told the New York Times that Whelan, who was deployed to Iraq twice, would be a highly unlikely candidate for a spy, since he was court-martialed by the Marine Corps in 2008 on larceny charges.
It’s possible that Whelan is being used in retaliation for the American conviction of Maria Butina, a Russian gun fanatic who admitted that she was attempting to infiltrate American right-wing political circles in December. She pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent in Washington, D.C., becoming the first Russian citizen to do so since U.S. intelligence agencies said the Russian government had attempted to undermine the 2016 U.S. election on Trump’s behalf. Officials told the New York Times, however, that Butina is likely to be released and deported the Russia in the coming months anyway.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman reportedly visited Whelan in prison this week, and Britain and Ireland are also seeking access to him, according to the Post. It’s rare for the CIA to send spies to foreign countries without diplomatic protections, which Whelan apparently did not have. One former official told the New York Times that the U.S. would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”
Like the U.S., Britain’s relationship with Russia has declined in recent years. The UK blamed Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent on English soil last year.
“We don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News. “Because it is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families, and we are extremely worried about him and his family as we hear this news.”
Cover: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a State Council meeting on the development of volunteering and socially oriented NGOs, at the Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)