It’s too early to discuss a possible “prisoner swap” involving detained American Paul Whelan, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Saturday, according to a Russian state news agency.
Whelan, a citizen of the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada, was arrested December 28 in Moscow and charged with espionage, according to his lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov. His family rejects the accusation, asserting he was in Russia only for a vacation.
“The situation around the American Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Russia, is very serious,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told RIA Novosti, the agency reported.
“As for the possibility of any ‘exchanges,’ it is impossible and wrong to raise a question on this now, when even the charges have not been formally brought,” he said.
Ryabkov’s comments follow speculation in national security circles that Russian President Vladimir Putin or his government agencies might be looking to orchestrate some sort of swap for alleged Russian agent Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the United States just 15 days before Whelan’s arrest.
The Russian government has not officially released further details about the allegations against Whelan, a Michigan resident and corporate security director for Michigan-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner.
Brother: ‘Not a spy’
Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, wrote his brother is not a spy, according to an op-ed Friday in The Washington Post. “He is many things to many people, but he is not a spy,” he wrote.
US embassy staff in Moscow have been given consular access to Whelan and have confirmed he is safe, a family statement said.
A diplomatic source familiar with the case told CNN Friday that Whelan does not appear to have any connection to any national intelligence operation. Whelan entered Russia on his US passport, and it remains unclear what exactly he might have been trying to do on his own in Russia, the source said.
Asked whether Whelan had ties to US intelligence, the CIA and the office of the Director of National Intelligence referred inquiries to the State Department, which did not respond immediately to CNN’s request for comment.
An unidentified source told Russian news site Rosbalt that Whelan was arrested in his hotel room with a flash drive containing classified information. The report was based on a source in the Russian special services, Rosbalt said.
CNN has not independently verified the official Russian allegations against Whelan.
The United States has told Russia it expects more information about the charge, and it will demand Whelan’s release “if the detention is not appropriate,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
The government department Global Affairs Canada said Friday it was aware that Whelan had been arrested and said consular assistance was being provided.
Russia has received a request from Canada to visit Whelan, and a meeting will be arranged in the coming days, if he agrees, sources from the Russian Foreign Ministry told state news agency TASS on Saturday.
Discharged from US military service
Whelan’s family says the discharged US Marines reservist, who served two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2006, was in Russia to attend a wedding for a fellow former US service member and a Russian woman.
Whelan’s service ended after he was convicted at a special court-martial on an attempted larceny charge, military court documents show. A record of his conviction says that while in Iraq, Whelan tried to steal $10,410 in US currency.
He’s had a career in corporate security, his brother said, including at BorgWarner since 2017.
Whelan’s job entails making sure BorgWarner facilities are physically secure, his brother said. The company confirmed his employment but noted BorgWarner has no facilities in Russia.
CNN’s Michelle Kosinski, Radina Gigova and Paula Newton contributed to this report.