A U.S. citizen’s detention in Moscow on suspicion of espionage could be the opening gambit in a Cold War-style spy drama – one overshadowed by a young Russian woman’s pending sentencing in the United States and the ongoing Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB, announced Monday that an American identified as Paul Whelan was taken into custody on Friday and a criminal investigation had been opened against him. The brief statement said Whelan was detained amid an “espionage mission,” but provided no details.
In Russia, a conviction for spying could carry a 20-year prison sentence.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said American authorities had been notified of the detention, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow referred queries to the State Department. The department said the U.S. had requested consular access.
The episode coincides with a fraught period for U.S.-Russia relations. In addition to the Mueller probe, which has been yielding a growing trove of indictments, tensions have been running high over recent developments in Ukraine, including last month’s Russian seizure of two Ukrainian warships, and Moscow’s role in the war in Syria.
The FSB announcement raised immediate speculation about the case of Maria Butina, a Russian national who made a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors and pleaded guilty this month in Washington to conspiracy charges.
Butina, who agreed to cooperate with U.S. investigators, acknowledged she had worked to infiltrate politically conservative organizations like the National Rifle Assn., working as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government.
The felony charge that the 30-year-old pleaded guilty to carries a five-year prison term, but the estimated sentencing guidelines are considerably lighter: zero to six months in prison. After being freed, Butina would face deportation.
Retired CIA official Steven L. Hall, a former head of Russian operations in Moscow, suggested a link between that case and the accusations against Whelan. “The Russians LOVE reciprocity,” he wrote on Twitter. “Think Maria Butina.”
Russia has sent mixed signals on the Butina case. President Vladimir Putin has said she is not known to any of the country’s spy agencies. But after the former graduate student’s arrest, Russia’s foreign ministry spearheaded a high-profile social media campaign in her defense, characterizing her as a political prisoner and at one point using her image as its Twitter avatar.
Little was immediately known about Whelan – even the English-language spelling of his name was not certain. That rendering came not from the FSB’s announcement but from the English-language service of Russia’s official Tass news agency.
A number of Russians have been indicted by Mueller as part of his ongoing investigation of links between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign, although none of those charged was in the U.S. and there is little prospect of them ever standing trial.
In July, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers in connection with cyberattacks including the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Those charges constituted the clearest and most detailed accusations yet by U.S. investigators regarding Russian interference in the 2016 vote.
Nearly a year ago, an additional 13 Russians and three Russian companies were charged in connection with election-tampering. Those charges, in February, also centered on Russian efforts to aid the Trump campaign.
The Kremlin has denied any state-directed interference in the 2016 election, and Trump has denied any coordination with Moscow on the part of his campaign. But Trump’s presidency has been colored by his continued dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings on Russia’s interference, and by his striking public deferrals to Putin, most notably following a summit in July in Helsinki, Finland.
Over the past 18 months, the president has taken to Twitter hundreds of times to angrily denounce Mueller’s investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
Western nations moved to punish Moscow after the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula, imposing a range of sanctions against individuals and corporate entities. The poisoning in March, on British soil, of turncoat Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter drew another round of diplomatic reprisals.
The pair survived the poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent, and Russia issued months of aggrieved denials of involvement even after painstakingly reconstructed British surveillance showed two Russian agents making their way to the town of Salisbury, where the attack took place.
On Sunday, Putin conveyed a new year’s greeting to Trump, in which he called Russian-U.S. ties the key factor in ensuring “strategic stability and international security.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.