Russia’s ‘Sham’ Charge of Spying Makes Whelan’s Case the Hardest

WASHINGTON — Over the past eight months, Paul Whelan has watched helplessly as two other Americans detained in Russia, both imprisoned after him, were released in prisoner exchanges while he was left stranded behind the barbed wire of IK-17, a penal colony nearly eight hours from Moscow.

Russia insists that Mr. Whelan, 52, is a spy who was caught red-handed, one whose 16-year sentence for espionage is richly deserved. In the Kremlin’s harsh game of human bartering, that makes the asking price for his release higher than it was for the basketball star Brittney Griner, who was convicted on drug smuggling charges but freed last week, and for Trevor Reed, who was sentenced for assaulting two Moscow police officers but released in April.

As a result, supporters of Mr. Whelan and analysts say, there is no clear path for his release. Two men held by the United States and whose freedom Russian officials have sought for years, the arms dealer Viktor Bout and the drug-smuggling pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, were released in the deals for Ms. Griner and Mr. Reed. Russia refused repeated U.S. efforts to include Mr. Whelan — who rejects his charges, saying he was set up — in the swap for Mr. Bout.

“Unfortunately, Russia has continued to see Paul’s case through the lens of sham espionage charges,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken recently said, “and they are treating him differently than they treated Brittney Griner.”

On Monday, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said U.S. officials would have “an engagement” with Russia about Mr. Whelan’s case this week.

Mr. Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, said in an interview that a new approach is necessary. “I’ve had some wild and crazy ideas that I’ve been sharing with the government,” she said. Ms. Whelan spoke to Mr. Biden last week and to White House officials on Monday.

Some analysts believe that the price for Mr. Whelan’s freedom might include relaxing an aspect of U.S. sanctions on Russia, or even the serendipitous capture of a Russian agent somewhere in the world who could then be traded.

Mr. Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, said a new approach is necessary for his release.Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Ms. Whelan conceded that confusion persisted about whether her brother might be guilty of the espionage that Russian prosecutors say he was committing when he visited Russia in December 2018. While at Moscow’s upscale Metropol hotel, Mr. Whelan greeted a Russian acquaintance who handed him a USB stick. Minutes later, he was arrested by Russian agents, who said the device contained a classified list of Russian Federal Security Service agents.

“You have a lot of people out there talking very ignorantly, thinking he’s James Bond or something,” Ms. Whelan said.

The Release of Brittney Griner

The American basketball star, who had been detained in Russia since February on drug charges, was exchanged for a Russian arms dealer.

  • Anxiety Turns to Relief: Brittney Griner’s supporters watched with dismay as her situation appeared to worsen over the summer. Now they are celebrating her release.
  • Blowback in America: Past hostage exchanges have sparked criticism. But the politics of race, gender and sexual orientation have fueled the response to Ms. Griner’s release in unique ways.
  • Does Hostage Diplomacy Work?: Detaining foreigners to wring concessions from their home country holds perils for both sides, but especially for the hostage takers, our columnist writes.
  • Bout’s Release: To the West, Viktor Bout is a criminal with blood on his hands. But in welcoming him home, Russia portrayed him as an innocent victim of American injustice.

The suggestion, at least, has been made in some prominent places. “Was he a spy?” the Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked on his nightly show last week, even as he angrily denounced President Biden’s failure to win Mr. Whelan’s release. “We can’t know for sure.” Some members of Congress expressed similar doubts after his arrest, people familiar with his case say.

Mr. Whelan is a former Marine, one who took a keen interest in Russia, traveling there often and making friends with people who have police and military backgrounds. He also happens to hold passports from Canada, Ireland and Britain as well as the United States.

But Mr. Whelan, his relatives and current and former U.S. officials firmly reject the idea that he maintained a secret identity.

“He’s definitely not a spy. But he looks like one,” said John Sipher, a former official in the CIA’s clandestine service who ran the agency’s covert operations in Russia.

Brittney Griner was convicted on drug smuggling charges but freed last week from Russia.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

American intelligence agencies have a strict policy of never confirming, or denying, that any individual worked for the U.S. government as a spy or informant. But Biden administration officials insist that the charges against him are fabricated and have classified him, as they did Ms. Griner, as “wrongfully detained,” tantamount to a political prisoner.

And in private, American officials flatly state that Mr. Whelan was not an intelligence informant. He is, they said, what he appears to be: a slightly eccentric Russophile who was entrapped by an ambitious intelligence agent he had befriended years before, apparently not realizing the man’s full background.

Mr. Whelan was an avid traveler, his family says, who first visited Russia while on leave from an administrative military posting in Iraq. In keeping with his longtime habit of making friends in foreign countries, he got to know several Russians and even had an account on the Russian social media network VK. A police officer in Michigan for more than a decade before he joined the Marines, Mr. Whelan was working as head of global security for the Michigan-based auto parts maker BorgWarner at the time of his arrest.

“When he goes to a new country to visit, he stops in at the local police station or whatever,” his sister said, adding that he enjoyed exchanging law enforcement patches with other officers. “So when the Russians say he was asking about the police — of course! That’s Paul.”

As for those passports: Mr. Whelan was born in Ottawa to British parents and moved to the United States. The government of Ireland often issues passports to people with Irish heritage.

Mr. Whelan’s family says he was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a fellow Marine to a Russian woman; the family has declined to name the couple on privacy grounds.

Mr. Whelan summarized his defense in memorable fashion at one court appearance in Moscow in 2019.

“Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission,” Mr. Whelan declared in a courtroom statement. “In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday,” he said, referring to a hapless 1990s British sitcom character.

Russia’s Kommersant newspaper has reported that Mr. Whelan’s phones had been under surveillance for many years and that he was recorded telling friends in the country he was interested in classified information. An actual spy, former officials said, would not have left such an electronic trail, sought out the kinds of friendships with ordinary Russians he valued or engaged in a meeting as risky as the one that led to his arrest.

Experts say Russia is known for planting evidence of espionage. The former journalist Nicholas Daniloff has recounted how, while serving as a Moscow bureau chief in the mid-1980s, a Russian friend handed him maps of Soviet military deployments that he had not requested. Mr. Daniloff was promptly arrested and eventually traded for a spy previously imprisoned by the United States.

And Russia today is far too dangerous for American intelligence operatives to work without the kind of diplomatic cover that ensures that the worst that happens to them is that they are expelled, rather than imprisoned, Mr. Sipher said.

Mr. Whelan also received a “bad conduct discharge” from the Marines in 2008 for reasons the military said included “attempted larceny” and the use of another person’s Social Security number — which people familiar with intelligence said would have marked him as too unreliable for a sensitive espionage mission. He is unmarried; family members say he is deeply attached to his dog, Flora.

Mr. Whelan, his relatives and current and former U.S. officials firmly reject the idea that he maintained a secret identity.Credit…Yuri Kochetkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Sipher added that it was conceivable that Mr. Whelan had tried to freelance as an undercover agent, perhaps by contacting someone he had served with in the Marines and offering to help, but he assigned “the tiniest of chances” to that scenario.

It continues to puzzle American officials why Russia values Mr. Whelan so highly. One White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations, said it was unclear whether the Russians sincerely believed Mr. Whelan was a spy, but that the question was immaterial because they are treating him as one.

Mr. Whelan was apprehended five months after the arrest in Washington of Maria Butina, who was charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia and accused of having been part of the Kremlin’s 2016 election interference efforts. Some U.S. officials thought Mr. Whelan might have been arrested to facilitate an exchange for Ms. Butina, or that he might be released when she finished her sentence. Neither happened. Ms. Butina was released from prison and deported to Russia in 2019.

A recent Russian demand that the United States secure the release of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian assassin serving a life sentence for murder in Germany, was deemed a non-starter.

To some of Mr. Whelan’s supporters, it feels as though the cards most likely to win his freedom have been played.

“I’m pretty up to speed with Russians in U.S. jails, and I don’t think there are any accused of any espionage-type of crime” that the Kremlin would consider equivalent to trade for Mr. Whelan, said his lawyer, Ryan Fayhee, a former national security official with the Justice Department.

“We need to arrest a Russian that matters to” President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Sipher said.

As it happens, the Justice Department announced the indictment of five Russian nationals on Tuesday on charges of money laundering and procuring electronics and ammunition for Moscow’s war machine despite sanctions. The Justice Department said in a statement that one them, Vadim Konoshchenok, is a suspected member of the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B. He was arrested in Estonia, a close U.S. ally, and will be extradited to the United States, the department said. The other four remain at large.

Neither name has publicly surfaced in connection with Mr. Whelan’s case.

It may be that Mr. Whelan could be freed by means other than a prisoner exchange. U.S. officials have ruled out relaxing sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Ukraine. But the United States also enacted many other Russian sanctions in the years before the invasion, and the White House official would not say whether those were off the table.

While Mr. Whelan’s family members and supporters do not begrudge the freedom of Ms Griner or Mr. Reed — whose release became an urgent priority for the White House amid concerns about his health — they find the difficulty in freeing Mr. Whelan to be maddening.

“Out of the group, he was the first one arrested,” said Rep. Haley Stevens, Democrat of Michigan, who represents Mr. Whelan’s district. “And he’s been the longest detained.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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