The month of June wasn’t kind to Paul Whelan, as he saw himself sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage. His sentencing came on June 15 at the conclusion of his “secret” trial. Whelan is no spy. In fact, Whelan is sadly just another U.S. citizen caught up in the gears of Russia’s realpolitik machinations.

Whelan’s Arrest in RUssia

On December 28, 2018, Paul Nicholas Whelan was arrested in his room at the famed, Metropol Hotel in Moscow. At that time, we speculated that this was a bit of international spy tit-for-tat. The Russian’s announced Whelan’s arrest via a web-posted press release, followed by commentary from a retired Major General of the FSB, Alexander Mikhailov, who painted the arrest as a major counterintelligence coup.

The tit-for-tat speculation was driven by the arrests and sentencing of multiple Russian nationals in the U.S. and Russia.

  • Maria Butina who pleaded guilty on December 20, 2018 to conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia within the United States, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in April 2019 and released in October 2019.
  • Alexei Zhitnyuk was found guilty by a Russian court on December 13, 2018 for being a source of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was sentenced to 13 years in a Russian penal colony. Zhitnyuk had been arrested in November 2017 for sharing information about the Russian Navy via Norwegian citizen Frude Berg who himself was arrested, by Russia, in December 2017.

Whelan’s Actions

Whelan traveled to Russia to attend the wedding of a U.S. friend at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. He took the opportunity to meet with a Russian acquaintance he had made via social networks. When the individual came to his hotel room, he allegedly handed Whelan a thumb-drive with names of Russians working at a secret facility. The FSB busted in and arrested Whelan, saving Mother Russia.

As noted in January 2019, Whelan is not an intelligence officer, and he never was an intelligence officer. If anything, he was an individual who wanted to project himself as being important in the Russia-U.S. geopolitical mix.

His actions made the Russian narrative plausible. He worked as the global security chief for an auto-parts supplier in Michigan. Whelan also held four passports – United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland.

The Detroit Free Press tells us that this former Marine’s time in the Marine Corps ended with his bad-conduct discharge from the Marine Corps following his conviction of several larceny-related charges.

Russia’s Chess Game

In December 2017, Frode Berg, who was acting on behalf of the Norwegian military intelligence service as a casual support asset, walked out of the same Metropol Hotel and was arrested “in the act of receiving documents” from Alexei Zhitnyuk. Berg was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was released as part of a spy-swap involving two Russian’s arrested in Lithuania for espionage in December 2019.

While Berg was a casual support asset, recruited to take money into Russia, this was not the case with Whelan. Russia’s actions concerning Whelan are similar to two cases, one in the 1980s and another in the early 2000s.

  • Edmond Pope was arrested in April 2000, in a Moscow hotel room, allegedly for receiving state secrets. Unlike Whelan, Pope actually did business in Russia, having traveled there more than 25 times. Pope was researching the Russian Navy’s Squall torpedo’s propulsion system for use in passenger ferries, the U.S. Navy was interested in the the torpedo for other reasons.

Pope was released following a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2001.

  • Nicholas Daniloff, a renown journalist and retired director of Northeastern’s journalism program, was the bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report in 1986. He was arrested in September 1986 in Moscow during a meeting with a long time journalistic source. The timing of his arrest was three days after the arrest of Gennadi Zakharov, a Russian physicist who was arrested for spying on behalf of the then Soviet Union by the FBI in the U.S.

Daniloff was released after two weeks of intense negotiations between the two governments. His release also saw the exchange of Zakharov being traded for Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov, a dissident nuclear physicist a week later.

The Russian playbook tells us that Whelan will be released within the next 6-18 months either by a Putin pardon or as a part of an exchange with Russia.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com