Paul Whelan (50)—a Canadian-born United States resident, Marine Corps veteran (discharged for bad conduct) and director of a security firm—was arrested in Moscow, in December 2018, by the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) counter-intelligence arm and charged with espionage. Whelan was incarcerated in the notorious FSB Lefortovo prison and sentenced by a Moscow court on June 15, 2020, to 16 years in a high-security prison camp. Whelan’s trial was officially declared classified and held behind closed doors without a jury, as is common for such processes in Russia. Journalists and foreign diplomats were allowed into the courtroom only for several short instances. Whelan holds US, Irish, British and Canadian citizenship. His Russian lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov (who has a security clearance from the FSB, allowing him to take part in closed and classified espionage court cases) told journalists the sentence will be appealed to a higher court. In the Russian legal system, such appeals are made “automatically,” do not take up much time, and the result is predictable: The original ruling will be rubberstamped. But Zherebenkov told reporters Whelan may be released early as a result of a possible exchange deal with the US and named two possible “Russian souls” held in US custody: Victor Bout, allegedly an international arms dealer, sentenced to 25 years in the US, in 2011, for conspiring to sell a large batch of weapons to the left-wing Colombian group FARC, as well as pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in jail on drug-dealing charges. According to Zherebenkov, a possible exchange deal “is already being discussed in the corridors [of power]” and “the intelligence services treat their own humanely, while an exchange is normal practice” (Interfax, June 15).
Apparently, the main motive behind Whelan’s arrest was to exchange him for Bout and Yaroshenko. According to FSB sources, Whelan, who traveled to Russia often, was under surveillance since his first visit in 2007. The FSB implies Whelan was a “cadre active service undercover intelligence officer” who attempted to recruit FSB and Ministry of Defense officials during his visits, gathered intelligence about FSB and defense ministry activities, and allegedly hinted to his Russian contacts he was working for US intelligence services. In December 2018, Whelan was handed a thumb drive allegedly containing classified material by an undercover FSB division “K” agent in the Metropol hotel, in downtown Moscow, and was immediately arrested by the FSB. The thumb drive was prepared by the siloviki service; it apparently had a list of staff of an FSB division but no real state secrets. Whelan evidently did not actually look into the thumb drive contents while being, according to his defense, alcohol-intoxicated and not fully understanding what was happening—he apparently believed the thumb drive contained innocent family photos (Kommersant, June 16).
The US ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, attended court when Whelan’s sentence was announced, and he denounced “this secret trial with no evidence” as a “violation of human rights and international legal norms.” US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo expressed outrage and demanded Whelan’s immediate release. Both Sullivan and Pompeo insisted the US will be pressing for Whelan’s unconditional release and not any possible exchange. President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that the US national was sentenced in a due process trail for serious crimes; he is not a political hostage and “it is not the business of the Kremlin to comment about any possible exchanges” (Interfax, June 15).
Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told journalists, “There are special inter-state mechanisms that may be employed if there is political will [to organize an exchange], and I will not comment further.” Zakharova implied Whelan was well treated while incarcerated and received adequate medical attention, “unlike Bout and Yaroshenko.” The US embassy in Moscow had accused the Russian authorities of not providing Whelan with adequate medical attention (RT, June 16). Russia’s commissioner for human rights, Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova, said, in a press conference, “I would be very glad if such an exchange [Whelan for Bout and Yaroshenko] happens. Not all the information can be made public, because the negotiation process is intricate. It is important that nothing breaks down.” The exchange negotiations are apparently being led by Russia’s externally focused Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)—the former First KGB Main Directorate (RIA Novosti, June 17). An “informed source” told semi-governmental news agency Interfax that negotiations over the technicalities of the exchange are underway and may happen via synchronized presidential pardons by Putin and Donald Trump; but “the final decision has not yet made.” Both Bout and Yaroshenko are reportedly ready to apply for a pardon (Interfax, June 17).
If Whelan was, indeed, a US intelligence cadre officer, as the FSB implies, an exchange would of course be relatively straightforward; but there is scant evidence to substantiate or even suggest he actually is one, which complicates things. Of course, Yaroshenko is not a spook either. The situation with Bout is more complicated: he clearly had connections but was simultaneously also apparently a free agent contractor. The proposed exchange could be delayed because of political repercussions, and Washington may decide to apply pressure—punitive sanctions—to force Whelan’s release instead of a backroom exchange deal. Still, Moscow does not seem particularly afraid. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (in charge of arms control and Russo-US relations within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), “Relation are already so bad they cannot get worse.” Ryabkov repeated a list of foreign ministry grievances, in particular the Russian-owned Cold War–era diplomatic dachas on Long Island and in Maryland, near Washington, confiscated during the Barack Obama administration, which President Trump failed to return to Russian jurisdiction (TASS, June 16).
Still, Trump is seen in Moscow as the better option. In a recent interview, Putin described the Black Lives Matter protest movement in the US as organized by Trump’s political enemies, “who have been using illegal means and circulating lies to undermine the authority of a democratically elected leader [Trump]” (Interfax, June 14). It is clear where the Kremlin stands in the present US internal crisis. But it remains to be seen whether a Putin-Trump deal might still possible at this late hour—at least one limited to an exchange of Whelan for Bout and Yaroshenko.