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Spy or tourist in Russia? The strange case of Paul Whelan

Reuters | Photo provided by the Whelan family.

The arrest of US former marine Paul Whelan in Russia has sparked intrigue across the globe. Is he a spy or just an innocent American tourist caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

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Russia detained Whelan, 48, on charges of espionage on 28 December. Whelan’s family insists he was in Russia to attend the wedding of a retired Marine. If found guilty of espionage, he faces up to between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Whelan holds four passports: American, Canadian, British and Irish -- all of which have offered him consular support. He was born in Canada to British parents and moved to the United States when he was a child.

Consular relations between Russia and each of those countries will dictate when the country's diplomats will be able to speak to Whelan, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Whelan worked as a police officer in Michigan in the US before signing up to the US Marine Reserves. He was deployed on two Iraq tours, in 2004 and 2006. It was during his military service that he first took a trip to Russia.

He was later discharged from the Marines on larceny charges, including trying to steal more than 10,000 USD worth of currency from the US government during his second tour in Iraq, and writing nearly 6,000 USD worth of bad checks, according to the Washington Post. Whelan’s family says they knew nothing about these convictions.

An account on Russia’s Facebook

Whelan had been learning Russian during his periods of deployment, according to people who served alongside him who spoke to the Washington Post.

Whelan visited Russia regularly since his first trip there in 2006. He made a number of Russian friends online, and even set up an account on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, which he used sporadically. His roughly 70 contacts on the social networking site all worked in IT security or the defence sector – not unlike Whelan, who worked in global security and solutions.

Whelan’s online Russian friends said that he made an effort to understand the culture and history of the country, as well as improving his linguistic skills. His brother David Whelan told the BBC that Paul’s knowledge of Russia was the reason why he had been invited to the wedding – to help organise the event and guide other American guests around Moscow’s main sights.

Paul Whelan… in return for Maria Butina?

Some observers believe that the arrest may be a ruse so that Moscow can initiate a spy swap – exchanging Paul Whelan in return for Maria Butina, who was indicted and pleaded guilty to acting as a Russian government agent in December last year.

But Moscow hit back at that suggestion. Ryabkov told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that it was too early to be talking about a spy swap, as Whelan had not yet been charged – a statement that contradicts what Whelan’s Russian lawyer previously alleged.

Russia says that Whelan was caught red-handed when he was arrested in his hotel room. He had a USB key on him that had the names of Russians working for governmental security agencies.

The New York Times quizzed former CIA officers, who say they don't believe he’s a spy. Espionage services are unlikely to recruit someone who has been sent down from the Marines for bad conduct, let alone send him to a politically sensitive country like Russia without diplomatic security.

In a further escalation of tensions between the two countries, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on January 5 that the US had detained a Russian national on December 29 – just one day after Whelan was arrested. Dmitry Makarenko was detained on the Northern Mariana Islands and has since been moved to Florida.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt issued a warning to Russia, saying that “individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage”. So is Paul Whelan being used as a pawn on the chessboard of global politics? It’s a complicated case with no obvious answers.

This piece was adapted from the original in French.

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