The arrest of US citizen Paul Whelan in Moscow last week prompted intense speculation in national security circles: It came just 15 days after alleged Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the United States.
The timing seemed to raise one possibility – that Russian President Vladimir Putin or his government agencies might be looking to orchestrate some sort of swap.
“I do think that Putin wants there to be some sort of quid pro quo so that he has some leverage over how quickly Butina can be released and probably deported back to Russia as soon as possible,” national security analyst Steve Hall told CNN. “But this isn’t a spy swap, because it’s not really intelligence that’s going on, these are more geopolitical policy and political issues that Putin is wrestling with and trying to gain leverage over the United States with.”
The Kremlin has certainly made freeing Butina a major priority. Russia’s Foreign Ministry launched an energetic social media campaign on her behalf, complete with its own hashtag, #freemariabutina. Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has used her detention to score political points, accusing the US of treating the Russian citizen to a “medieval inquisition” while in detention.
We know less about the conditions Whelan is being kept in in Moscow’s Lefortovo jail. But US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman’s visit Wednesday to the detained US citizen suggests that the State Department is taking Whelan’s case as seriously as Russia’s top diplomats are taking Butina’s case.
Butina pleaded guilty in federal court last month to attempting to infiltrate Republican political circles and influence US relations with Russia – in essence, to acting as an unregistered lobbyist for a foreign power. She faces a maximum of five years in prison, but is likely to receive a lesser sentence of zero to six months based on a plea agreement, and may be deported after serving her sentence.
On Thursday, Russia formally charged Whelan with a more severe crime – espionage – which can carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
When the Federal Security Service announced Whelan’s arrest on New Year’s Eve, the agency accused him of a more severe crime. The FSB’s investigative department initiated a criminal case against the American citizen under article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation – espionage – a provision that recommends a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
Whelan’s family rejects any claim that he was working a spy, saying the former Marine reservist was in Russia to attend a wedding of a fellow former US military service member and a Russian woman.
Other Russians in custody
Whether or not Whelan is an innocent American caught up in a larger political confrontation between Washington and Moscow, his case potentially puts the spotlight on other high-profile Russians in American custody.
Zakharova, for instance, has also publicly pressed for the release of convicted Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout, dubbed the “merchant of death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 by a federal judge.
Bout, who has maintained his innocence, was convicted in 2011 on four counts of conspiracy to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. The Russian government has accused the US of pursuing a political agenda in the Bout case.
Zakharova has also advocated for the release of another Russian national, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted in 2011 in federal court of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States after being arrested in Liberia and transferred to the US.
In a 2017 briefing, Zakharova said Yaroshenko was “kidnapped” by American intelligence services in Liberia and sentenced for “absolutely unsubstantiated accusations”; the Kremlin has called for his return to Russia on humanitarian grounds for medical treatment.
“So far, it looks like Konstantin Yaroshenko, like Viktor Bout, who is also serving a long sentence in an American prison, are held hostage in Washington,” Zakharova said.
Historically, there are precedents for the US and Russia to exchange detainees and prisoners.
Take the case of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, the former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for the UK. Skripal was part of a spy swap conducted between the US and Russia in 2010, exchanged as part of a group for 10 so-called Russian sleeper agents deported by the US.
Skripal’s spy swap had a grim postscript: Early last year, he and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent in an apparent assassination attempt that the British government blamed on agents of Russian military intelligence. That incident sparked a months-long cycle of espionage accusations, a drama that now looks set to repeat in 2019.