Moscow announces arrest of American on espionage charges

The move comes amidst new tensions over the fate of Maria Butina.

Is the recent arrest of an American in Moscow retaliation for Maria Butina? CREDIT: MIKHAIL SVETLOV / GETTY
Is the recent arrest of an American in Moscow retaliation for Maria Butina? CREDIT: MIKHAIL SVETLOV / GETTY

On Friday, one of Russia’s primary intelligence agencies announced that it had arrested an American for espionage.

According to a statement from the FSB, Russia’s successor to the Soviet-era KGB, Russian authorities arrested Paul Whelan in Moscow “during an act of espionage.”

The details offered by the FSB’s announcement were scant, and it’s still unclear where Whelan is being held or what exactly he was arrested for. The U.S. Embassy has yet to issue a statement, but the State Department told Newsweek that they have requested consular access. “We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it,” a State Department spokesperson said.

Charges of espionage carry sentences of up to 20 years in Russia.

The arrest follows the latest developments in the ongoing saga of Maria Butina, the Russian national accused of infiltrating both Republican and National Rifle Association (NRA) networks. Butina recently pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of Russia, after prosecutors alleged that she worked at the behest of sanctioned Russian official Alexander Torshin — a man accused by Spanish authorities of overseeing massive money laundering operations.


It’s unclear if Whelan’s arrest directly pertains to Butina’s saga. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, recently commented on Butina — and even fielded a question about whether or not he would consider retaliatory arrests following her guilty plea.

On Dec. 20, Putin said, “As for the fate of Russian nationals, we do care about them, including the fact that Butina is being forced to admit something over there. I cannot understand what she could possibly have admitted, since she was not following any instructions from the Russian Government or its agencies.”

Putin also fielded a question hinting that Russia should follow China’s recent precedent. China has recently begun arresting and holding Canadian citizens, apparently as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive accused of breaching Iranian sanctions.

In response, Putin said, “This is a very sensitive area, and we will not act according to the laws of the Code of Hammurabi here. The law of retaliation states, ‘An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.’ We need to act very cautiously here, and we need to be real.”

This story has been updated to include a statement by the State Department.