Russia Arrests US Citizen on Spying Charges

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside in Moscow, Russia, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Russia’s security agency announced Monday that an American citizen, Paul Whelan, has been arrested on charges of espionage in Moscow.

Whelan was taken into custody on Friday, according to a report Monday by the Russia state-owned news service, TASS.

The Russian Federal Security Service or FSB said in a separate announcement that it “initiated a criminal case” against Whelan under article 276 of the Russian Federation’s criminal code.

Espionage is filed under article 276.

The Russian agency provided no further details about the nature of charges against Whelan and on Monday, the U.S. State Department did not immediately return request for comment.

Whelan’s arrest adds to an already tense atmosphere between the U.S. and Russia, particularly when it comes to spy games – alleged or otherwise.

Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States on Dec. 13. She admitted to working within the National Rifle Association, a powerful American lobbying organization, to open Russian channels of access to U.S. politicians.

As a part of her plea, Butina also admitted to infiltrating the NRA at the direction of Alexander Torshin, the Central Bank of Russia’s deputy governor.

The Russian government has denied Butina is their agent, and there is no apparent connection between Butina and Whelan at this time.

Historically, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has used arrests of foreigners as a point of leverage.

In 2016, Putin engaged in a highly public prisoner swap when trading Ukrainian prisoner and politician Lt. Nadiya Savchenko for two Russian military intelligence officers captured by Ukrainian forces.

Savchenko was apprehended by Russian authorities in Ukraine in 2014 after conflict erupted between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. 

Russian authorities claimed Savchenko killed two Russian state journalists during the fighting and imprisoned her.

Her lawyer claimed she couldn’t have killed the journalists because she had been abducted from Ukrainian territory a full hour before their deaths, according to reporting by Radio Free Press Europe.

Though she was exchanged for the Russian intelligence officers, once Savchenko returned to Ukraine and announced plans to run for president there in 2019, she was arrested again and charged with plotting a terrorist attack as well as overthrowing the Ukrainian government.

On Dec. 20, during his last news conference of the year, reporters asked Putin if Russia would arrest foreign citizens “under far-fetched pretexts” in exchange for prisoners.

“This is a very sensitive area and we will not act according to the laws of the Code of Hammurabi here,” Putin said. “The law of retaliation states, ‘an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.’ We need to act very cautiously here and we need to be real. We will respond if certain people violate Russian legislation, regardless of their national and state affiliation. But we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”

The outwardly diplomatic tone continued this past Sunday when the Kremlin published summaries of annual New Year’s letters Putin sent to world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump.

In his letter to Trump, Putin expressed his belief that “Russia-U.S. relations are the most important factor behind ensuring strategic stability and international security,” and that Russia is “open for dialogue” with the U.S. on a “wide-ranging agenda.”

Trump cancelled a meeting with Putin on Dec. 1 at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. The president said the cancellation was a response to Russia’s seizure of three ships belonging to the Ukrainian navy.

A representative from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return request for comment Monday.

Other world leaders who received a New Year’s letter from Putin include the Russian-backed president of Syria, Bashar Assad.

In his letter to Assad, Putin emphasized Russia’s commitment to providing “all around assistance to the government and people of Syria in their fight against terrorism and efforts to protect state sovereignty and territorial integrity,” TASS reported Sunday.

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