Russians Arrest American on Espionage Charges
Russians Arrest American on Espionage Charges
In case you were too busy cheering the government shutdown or getting hammered on New Year’s Eve to check international news, Russia has detained an American for espionage. The Russians gave no explanation or details about the alleged espionage activities in which Paul Whelan was supposedly involved. They opened a criminal case, and now Whelan could spend up to 20 years in a Russian prison.
And if you think Russian prison is easy time, I will remind you of a guy named Sergei Magnitsky, who was imprisoned on false charges because he discovered about a massive theft of assets by Russian officials, and died in prison 11 months later after treatment so foul and severe, that it triggered legislation in the United States (and later globally) called the Magnitsky Act, which authorizes governments to sanction human rights violators, freeze their assets, and bar them from traveling to the United States.
Whelan’s family has cause to worry, but so far, consular staff report that US Ambassador Jon Huntsman visited Whelan in the detention facility in Moscow where he is being held, and at least for now, Whelan seems to be OK.
Russia claims Whelan was “caught spying” – whatever that means (no word on spying on whom or what) – but Whelan’s family claims he was there to attend a wedding. I doubt that Whelan could have been in the intelligence community in any way, shape, or form – especially not as a case officer. For one, he received a bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps in 2008 and was busted down to private before being handed his big chicken dinner, and having filled out one of those dreaded SF-86 forms in a previous life, I can pretty much guarantee that the CIA and other such agencies won’t take you with that kind of record.
Whelan received a bad-conduct discharge from the Marines in 2008, according to military records. He is now the corporate security director at BorgWarner, a Michigan-based automotive parts supplier, and his family said he was in Russia over the holidays to attend a wedding in central Moscow. Nothing in Whelan’s background, said former CIA official John Sipher, suggested he would be a likely spy.
Sipher told The Washington Post that Russia has “an incredibly robust and talented counterintelligence service” and that the United States is well aware of the sophistication of Russian espionage. “The way we run spy cases in Moscow is very, very carefully, very meticulous,” Sipher said. “We don’t send in random Americans without diplomatic immunity to collect low-level stuff.”
Whelan’s job title alone would probably attract attention, not avoid it. “You wouldn’t use a cover like a global security guy to commit espionage,” Chris Costa, a former U.S. intelligence officer who is the executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, said to The Post.
So I’m not at all convinced Whelan was a spy. There was something more than creepy about his Russophilia, as reported by the Stars and Stripes, so it’s difficult to believe that he would spy against the country he seemed to love.
More likely than not, the Russians are retaliating for the US arrest of their own intelligence officer Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to work as a Russian agent and wield influence in conservative circles.
This isn’t the first time Russia and the West have played tit-for-tat in the spy game. In 2010, Moscow warned the UK that it would retaliate for any attempt to deport parliamentary assistant Alexander Sternik whom the Brits detained for allegedly spying for Russia. In 1999, the US accused Russian diplomat Stanislav Gusev of spying for Russia a week after Russian authorities detained Cheri Leberknight – an employee at the US Embassy in Moscow.
Whelan was not an employee of the US government. He left military service under less than stellar conditions, so accusing this dude of espionage is a bit silly on the Russians’ part. Meanwhile, financier Bill Browder, who positions himself as the archenemy of Vladimir Putin, claims that Whelan’s detention is a desperate act on the part of Putin to somehow derail the Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling in 2016.
“I think Putin is in a raw panic because of Maria Butina, the Russian woman who was caught trying to basically take money from Russia and contribute it to the Trump campaign via the NRA,” Browder said. “She has pleaded guilty and offered to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation. Up until five days ago, there was 100 percent chance she was going to cooperate. Now, all of a sudden, Putin has taken a hostage, an ex-military officer. This gives him some possibility of negotiating a prisoner swap.”
For the record, although I admire Browder’s work exposing the Russians’ corruption and enjoyed his book “Red Notice,” detailing the Magnitsky affair, in which Browder was involved as the head of Hermitage Capital, which was raided by Russian authorities in 2007, leading to the theft of $230 million of taxes that the fund’s companies had paid to the Russian government, and which resulted in the arrest and murder of attorney Sergei Magnitsky in Russia’s Butyrka prison after the latter discovered and testified about the corruption, I feel like Browder has become this egomaniacal narcissist who gets his rocks off by posturing as Putin’s greatest enemy and super spy with insider information.
Yes, there are tools we can use to put pressure on Russia to release Whelan, but success in that arena is far from guaranteed. There are sanctions, he claims, there are ways to disrupt Russia’s access to the international banking system… Browder seems to think that such an arrest is something new and different, instead of a normal “tit-for-tat” in which the Russians have engaged with the West for decades.
The US already has a robust sanctions program against Russia – both in the Magnitsky sphere and through several executive orders signed after Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Those involved in the Magnitsky affair, as well as in other human rights abuses, are already prohibited from entering the United States and are cut off from the US dollar. Similarly, Russians are sanctioned under three Crimea executive orders for activities relating to undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and cyber executive orders for mucking around in the 2016 Elections.
Although sanctions, coupled with a drop in oil prices, took their toll on the Russian economy, it’s slowly returning to growth, and the Russians are more than ready if they get booted from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). Sanctions didn’t change Russia’s course, and I think invading a sovereign nation and annexing a part of it has a higher global significance than the arrest of one individual charged with vague espionage accusations. If sanctions did nothing to dissuade Russia from its actions in Ukraine – a much more public and consequential act on the global stage than their arrest of Whelan – I doubt anything will happen here as well. Browder is a financier, so seems to think that financial sanctions are the answer to all our Russia ills.
Also, Browder obviously knows exactly dick about the military or Whelan’s service. Whelan was not a military officer. He was an admin NCO, who rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant before being booted out as a private. Browder’s claim that Putin somehow has an ace in the hole by arresting Whelan showcases once again Browder’s immense ego that doesn’t comport with his ability to logic when it comes to Putin.
Sorry, but the Russians are once again playing espionage games as we careen toward Cold War relations, and economic sanctions will not secure Whelan’s release.