Written by Julian E. Barnes and Neil MacFarquhar
He loved to travel around Russia by train, collected tea glass holders stamped with Russian historical scenes and maintained social media friendships with ordinary Russians, from a hairstylist to retired members of the country’s military.
Now Paul N. Whelan, a former US Marine and current security chief for BorgWarner, an international auto parts manufacturer, has been accused of espionage by Russia and is in solitary confinement in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison — long used by the KGB and its successors for Soviet dissidents and foreign spies. The US government refused to publicly discuss Whelan’s status in detail, but former CIA officers said they did not think he was a spy.
Whatever the truth, Whelan, 48, has become the latest pawn between Russia and the United States as rising tensions take on the cast of the Cold War years, when espionage charges and spy swaps were common. Whelan’s arrest comes after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, admitted to being involved in an organized effort, backed by Russian officials, to lobby influential Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party and pleaded guilty on December 13 in US District Court in Washington to conspiring to act as a foreign agent.
On Thursday, Russian authorities formally charged Whelan, who could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, his lawyer, Vladimir A. Zherebenkov, said in an interview. Current and former officials said it was possible Whelan was seized to exchange him for Butina.
There is little doubt that Whelan — who joked about giving Alaska back to Russia as long as they took in a former governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin — was an unusual person with out-of-the ordinary travel and associations. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Whelan was deployed twice to Iraq before he was court-martialed by the Marine Corps in 2008 on charges of larceny and passing bad checks.
He had visited Russia since at least 2006 — the trip that year was part of a special military furlough program — and was familiar to numerous Russians who had known him or interacted with him on social media.
Whelan’s family said that he was in Russia on his most recent trip, in December, to attend the wedding of a friend from the Marine Corps who was marrying a Russian woman at the storied Metropol Hotel in Moscow. That is where Russian authorities apprehended Whelan last Friday during a meeting with a Russian citizen in his hotel room.
Rosbalt, a Russian news agency close to the security services, quoted an unidentified intelligence source on Wednesday who said that Whelan was accused of trying to recruit the Russian to obtain classified information about staff members at various Russian agencies.
Whelan was arrested five minutes after receiving a USB stick containing a list of all of the employees at a classified security agency, Rosbalt said.