Berlin (CNSNews.com) – The arrest in Russia of a former U.S. Marine has sparked speculation over whether the move was in retaliation for the arrest and trial in the U.S. of an alleged Russian spy.
“We’ve made clear to the Russians our expectation that we will learn more about the charges, come to understand what it is he's been accused of and if the detention is not appropriate we will demand his immediate return,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Brazil on Wednesday.
Paul Whelan was detained by Russian authorities during a visit to Moscow for a friend’s wedding last Friday, and has been accused of spying. The Federal Security Service said he had been arrested “during a spy action.” If found guilty, he faces a jail term of 10 to 20 years.
His arrest came 15 days after alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a federal court in DC to attempts to influence Republican political circles and U.S.-Russian relations. Butina had maintained her innocence until striking a plea deal with prosecutors on December 13.
Russia’s foreign ministry has been advocating energetically on Butina’s behalf, dismissing the charges against her as fabricated.
During an end-of-the-year press conference on December 20, President Vladimir Putin was asked whether Russia would retaliate over the case, and replied that he would not “arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”
Nevertheless, the timing of Whelan’s arrest has sparked speculation over it being a possible exchange play.
Relations with the U.S. plummeted in 2014 after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, prompting the U.S. and Western allies to impose a range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies, and banks. Last November, President Trump canceled a planned meeting with Putin, citing Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships and their crew members.
An investigation by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election has kept a spotlight on the Trump-Putin relationship. Trump has branded the investigation a “witch hunt.”
Tho Bishop, political scientist at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, said fallout from the Mueller investigation, the indictment of 12 Russian nationals, and the arrest of Butina, may have escalated matters, but overall Whelan’s arrest was “collateral damage” in an ongoing feud since Crimea’s annexation.
“In any conflict, innocent parties often pay the costs for hostilities between state actors,” he said.
“The people of Russia, for example, are made poorer by U.S. sanctions on their country.
In response, it's not surprising that the Russian government will do anything it can to show it will not be bullied by the West,” Bishop added. This could take the form of targeting Americans visiting Russia.
Matthew Crosston, senior doctoral faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University, said Whelan’s background appeared unlikely to place him as a spy.
“He does not have the background, training, or educational expertise, if I am being honest, to be selected for such a task by the U.S. government.”
“Grabbing just a regular U.S. citizen who is possibly being unjustly held puts MUCH greater pressure on the American government to make a deal to get him back to American soil,” Crosston said in an email.
“If Whelan was a true spy, working for our intelligence community, then getting caught is part of the occupational hazard,” he said. “The pressure to get him released would not be as media-pressured as for a ‘normal’ citizen.”
Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin made a similar comment in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday, saying Whelan does not fit the mold of a U.S. espionage agent.
Crosston said it was too early to say whether the move was linked to Butina’s arrest, but the Kremlin would undoubtedly feel Butina had been unfairly treated and pressured into pleading guilty.
“That guilty plea paints Russia in what Putin considers to be an unjust sinister light,” he said. “Putin does indeed like to take media-savvy, ‘big public’ maneuvers whenever he feels Russia has been either pushed into a corner or ‘disrespected’ in some way.”
Global Security Review editor Joshua Stowell said in his view it was “quite possible that Whelan’s arrest was either in retaliation for Butina’s arrest or to set up an exchange for Butina.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more U.S. citizens are detained in Russia if tensions continue to grow between Moscow and Washington,” he said.