Spy Games: Russia’s Arrest of Paul Whelan and Where it May Lead

It has been a week since former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow on charges of espionage. Since initially being detained, important details about Whelan’s background have emerged, giving some important context to the charges against him.

A “Typical” Background

Forty-eight-year-old Whelan was born in Canada and later moved to Michigan, where he embarked on a career in military and law enforcement in the early 1990s. Whelan had several low-level jobs in police departments throughout the state, including working as a patrol officer in Keego Harbor, and reportedly a sheriff’s deputy in Washtenaw County.

In 1994, Whelan joined the Marines as a reservist. He rose through the ranks to become a staff sergeant, deploying twice to Iraq and working as an administrative clerk and an administrative chief. Whelan also racked up several stateside assignments such as a job in the Marine Air Control Group 38, an aviation command-and-control unit based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. His time with the Marines did not end well. Whelan was dishonorably discharged in 2008 after being convicted by court-martial for financial-related fraud.

After the military, Whelan entered the world of corporate security. At least two companies that Whelan held high positions in included “international components” as both organizations —staffing firm Kelly Services and auto-parts distributor BorgWarner— are global business. However, statements from the two organizations asserted that Whelan’s work never had any connection to Russia.

Perhaps the most intriguing part about Whelan’s background is his unique citizenship status.

The Diplomatic Scurry

In addition to being a Canadian and an American, Whelan also holds Irish and British passports. All four of these governments have since put considerable effort into Whelan’s case. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. met with Whelan earlier this week at Lefortovo Prison, a former KGB compound in Moscow. The meeting followed a demand from the State Department that Moscow abide by their commitment to the Vienna Convention, an international treaty on consular relations. Canadian officials also reported that the country’s Global Affairs office is providing consular assistance to Whelan and is asking Russian authorities for more information on his case. Similarly, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his government was helping Whelan. “We are giving him every support that we can,” Hunt told UK media in a recent interview, adding that “we are extremely worried about him and his family.” At the end of last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin also confirmed that Irish Embassy staff in Moscow had received a request for consular assistance from an Irish citizen “currently detained in Russia.”

According to a spokesman, “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will provide all possible and appropriate assistance in relation to this case.”

A Pawn on a Very Big Chess Board

Beyond the possible injustice being committed against a U.S. citizen, the case of Paul Whelan’s arrest may have more global implications as well.

Whelan’s arrest comes at a height of tension between Russian and the West, not just over all the “regular” stuff like the occupation of Crimea and election meddling, but specifically regarding the deployment of foreign agents.

The Sergei Skripal incident, in which the former British spy was poisoned along with his daughter in Salisbury, is still fresh in the minds of British leaders. The attack became a major diplomatic incident, with Britain expelling 23 Russian diplomats from the country, the greatest expulsion of diplomats from the UK in over 30 years.

Whelan’s arrest also comes less than a month after Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court for conspiring against the United States. After almost two years of monitoring her activity, the 30-year-old Russian had been picked up by the FBI in July of last year. Butina had spent years developing contacts with conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast. According to prosecutors, Butina’s efforts were part of the broader Russian attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. Of course the official stance of the Kremlin on both of these incidents has been complete denial. Regarding the arrest of Maria Butina, the Russian Foreign Ministry even accused the U.S. of arresting her for “political motivations.” Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Butina took the plea bargain offered her by the Department of Justice in order “to survive.”

As some observers have already pointed out, this political back-and-forth between Russia and other Western countries may be turning into a dangerous trend. Whelan’s arrest raises the concern that nations could be sliding into an era when civilians become pawns of international relations. Furthermore, Whelan is most likely not the first victim. The tactic of targeting citizens in “tit-for-tat” arrests was seen recently in China’s detaining of thirteen Canadian citizens. Chinese authorities began the series of arrests after the chief financial officer for Chinese mobile giant Huawei Technologies was detained in Vancouver following a U.S. extradition request.

The obvious connection between the recent arrests in the U.S. and Russia has lead to some interesting speculations. Reportedly, the lawyer appointed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to represent Whelan has come up with a plan for a prisoner swap. Attorney Vladimir Zherebenkov recently told U.S. media that his goal in the case is to arrange a trade and bring home “at least one Russian soul.” The obvious candidate for the swap would be Maria Butina, whom the Russians still maintain is innocent.

While such a deal would put a quick end to the saga, it could have severe long-term repercussions. Handing over Butina for Whelan would in a way legitimize a type of geopolitical blackmail in which regular citizens are targeted and then used as trading pieces in the game of statecraft.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Samuel Siskind

Samuel Siskind studied intelligence research at the American Military University in West Virginia. He served as a squad commander in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Corp of Combat Engineers, in the Corps' ground battalions and later in its Intelligence Wing at regional and divisional stations. For the past five years, Samuel has worked as a consultant and researcher on physical and information security issues for private and governmental institutions, in the US, Africa, India, and Israel. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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