A former U.S. Marine being held in Moscow has been formally charged with espionage, Russian news agencies reported Thursday, a move likely to deepen diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Washington.
A Russian court charged Paul Whelan, 48, on Monday, according to Interfax, a Russian news agency. The charges came after the FSB, the Russian security agency, arrested Whelan on Dec. 28 at the famed Metropol Hotel in central Moscow, just steps from the Kremlin. At the time, the FSB said Whelan had been detained “during an act of espionage” but did not provide any details.
Whelan’s family insists he is innocent and was in Moscow to attend a friend’s wedding.
“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” his twin brother David said in a statement.
A Russian defense lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, has requested that Whelan be released on bail, Interfax reported.
If convicted, Whelan could face up to 20 years in prison.
According to multiple media reports, Whelan is the director of global security and investigations for BorgWarner, an automotive components manufacturer in Michigan. His brother said in media interviews that Whelan had an avid interest in Russia and had visited the country several times, but that he was not a spy.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan on Wednesday at the Lefortovo Detention Center in Moscow, where Whelan is being held in isolation, and assured him the government was doing all it could to make sure he is treated well. Huntsman later called Whelan’s family and offered the U.S. Embassy’s help, while Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said Washington was continuing to seek information about the case against Whelan and would demand his release “if the detention is not appropriate.”
“I don’t have much to update, but the American people should know that the safety and security of Americans traveling abroad is of the utmost importance to us here at the State Department and throughout the United States government,” Pompeo told the news website Newsmax. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure that he’s treated appropriately and that we get the information we need.”
Zherebenkov told Interfax that the Russian courts have provided Whelan with a translator and that he was being treated professionally in the detention center and was “not depressed.”
Whelan’s arrest raised speculation that the Kremlin was seeking a Cold War-style reciprocal response to the U.S. prosecution of Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who was charged with operating as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government. Butina is accused of trying to infiltrate right-leaning groups such as the National Rifle Assn. during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Kremlin has denied Butina is a Russian agent and accused the U.S. of conducting a Russophobic campaign meant to weaken Moscow’s position on the world political stage.
Russian media speculation about Whalen has raised tensions in Moscow at a time when relations between the U.S. and Moscow are strained.
RosBalt, a Russian news agency, on Thursday quoted an unnamed source within the investigation as saying that Whelan was caught “red-handed” in Moscow after receiving a flash drive containing Russian “state secrets.” RosBalt reported that the source told it that the information contained the names of Russian security officers, information that Whelan had reportedly obtained through social media.
RosBalt said that investigators believed Whelan was trying to “friend” Russians online and “embed” himself in their private lives to obtain state secrets. The report suggested that Whelan went as far as going to family celebrations, such as the wedding Whelan was allegedly in Moscow to attend.
Zherebenkov told Russian news agencies that the courts could hold Whelan until at least Feb. 28, unless bail is set. Russian government agencies are on holiday until after the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7, making it unclear when Whelan’s case might be heard.
Ayres reported from London.
Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Washington.