A former marine who is said to be visiting Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding has been charged with spying, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
Paul Whelan, 48, was arrested by Russian security services on December 28, on suspicions that he was on a “spy mission.” Whelan had traveled to Russia before, and his family denies all spying allegations.
Whelan is being held in solitary confinement in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.
According to Russian sources Whelan was arrested shortly after he was given a USB drive by a Russian man visiting him at his hotel. The drive allegedly carried the names of the employees of a secret organization. Whelan himself head the security department for a Michigan plant manufacturing automotive parts.
Offering little detail, Russian authorities also claim that Whelan has been attempting to make contact with Russian “sources” for the past decade. A number of those he was in touch with in Russia were visible on his VKontakte (Russian Facebook), where he also announced his travel plans to Moscow.
If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
It is widely believed that Whelan’s arrest is in response to the arrest of Russian citizen Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to operate as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.
She could face five years in prison, but according to CNN, will only “receive zero to six months” owing to her plea agreement. She has already served nearly six months, and will be deported as soon as she’s done serving her sentence.
Still, it is possible that Russia might seek to swap Butina for Whelan, or that, at the very least, arrested Whelan as some kind of payback for Butina’s arrest.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, visited Whelan in prison on Wednesday, the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that American authorities are still trying to “learn more about the charges” against Whelan.
“If the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return,” said Pompeo.
Although Pompeo has not exactly jumped to Whelan’s defense, security sources have told People magazine that Whelan is not spying for the United States.
EX-CIA agent John Sipher has also said that Whelan’s uneven military record (he was discharged over bad conduct) would make him an unfit candidate for intelligence operations.
“He absolutely does not fit the profile of someone we would use in a place like Moscow,” said Sipher.