On Monday, December 31st, Russian security services arrested an American man in Moscow on charges of espionage. Paul Whelan, who, according to his family, was visiting the Russian capital in order to attend a wedding, was arrested by the FSB—Russia’s domestic security service—for “carrying out an act of espionage.”
A U.S. Marine veteran, Whelan had been to Russia multiple times during the past decade for business-related matters. More specifically, he had travelled to Moscow for his work with the Kelly Services, a management consulting firm, and Borg Warner, an automotive industry components and parts-supply company.
In a statement, the Whelan family said they “noticed that he was not in communication on the 28th, which was very much out of character for him even when he was traveling. We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected. We are hoping he will be able to return home soon.”
According to his brother, Whelan’s Russian-language capabilities were limited to everyday phrases tourists use to get around.
In a statement, the State Department said that “Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access. We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it.” The State Department declined to provide further information on the event, citing privacy considerations.
Judging from the emerging reports, it appears that U.S. embassy officials don’t have access to Whelan at this time. If found guilty of spying, Whelan could face up to 20 years behind bars.
This event comes in the wake of the guilty plea of a Russian national who admitted spying in the U.S. On December 30, Maria Butina pleaded guilty to espionage charges after spending time in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison. She admitted approaching senior Republican Party officials in order to gain intelligence. Moreover, she was planning to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) before getting caught.
When asked about the 30-year-old woman, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “She risks 15 years in jail. For what? I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her.”
Both events have occurred during an uneasy period in Russo-American relations following numerous allegations of election interference. The Russian government appears to want a hostage as a bargaining chip for Butina.