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US citizen charged with espionage in Russia

American citizen Paul Whelan has been formally charged in Russia with espionage, his lawyer said, almost a week after he was detained in Moscow while on what his family says was only a vacation trip.

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 3:37 AM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 3:56 AM

Russia's arrest of American citizen Paul Whelan on charges of espionage signals the latest challenge to already frayed relations between Washington and the Kremlin. Russian officials claim the former US Marine was detained while engaged in an act of spying. On Thursday, Rosbalt, a Russian news outlet, reported Whelan was arrested while in possession of information deemed classified by the Russian government. However, CNN has not yet verified this reporting.

Lost on no one is the fact the arrest comes less than a month after alleged spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in an American court to engaging in a conspiracy against the United States. Many experts have publicly pondered whether Whelan's arrest is part of an effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to initiate a "spy swap" and have Butina returned to Moscow.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that "the American people should know we're very focused on this at the most senior level of the United States Government." He also confirmed that US Ambassador to Russia John Huntsman paid a visit to the prison where Whelan is being held and that he spoke to the Whelan family, which says he was in Russia only for a vacation. President Donald Trump has yet to issue an official statement.

While there is no word yet of an official prisoner swap, and we don't know how Trump might respond to such an offer, there is a lot at stake for both world leaders. Indeed, a swap could prove politically beneficial to both Putin and Trump.

For his part, Putin's success in freeing Butina would potentially ward off continued embarrassment that has resulted from the public exposure of the alleged spy's efforts. In her plea agreement, she acknowledged attempts to forge relationships with powerful US political officials for the benefit of the Russian Federation. She has yet to be sentenced, but will likely face some jail time.

Although Russia is notorious for attempting to infiltrate American society with spies working without diplomatic cover, any instance in which their efforts are exposed serves as a black eye for a country whose intelligence services remain among the most proficient in the world.

Dispensing with Butina would also potentially serve to benefit Trump and his political party. The alleged spy stands accused of working to infiltrate the GOP and groups, like National Rifle Association, at the direction of a Russian leader. One Republican activist -- Paul Erickson -- faces potential legal jeopardy for his association with Butina, and she has agreed to cooperate with law enforcement on any investigations in which she might be useful. Booting her out of the country would effectively end that ongoing cooperation, possibly sparing the GOP from any new revelations of wrongdoing by its members.

Not only is Butina likely to be used as a bargaining chip, but the return of Whelan to the United States would be an added political boon for Trump. If past is prologue, the reality television host-turned-President will no doubt seek to exploit the return of a former Marine.

Who can forget the air of suspense that was created as Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, regrettably politicized the release of three hostages from North Korea last May? Trump did the same with the release of an American pastor in Turkey last October -- tweeting incessantly about the case and then parading the released victim before cameras in the Oval Office.

To be clear, the release of these prisoners was a blessing. And the President certainly deserves credit for his work in securing their return. However, he simply cannot help but politicize these solemn occasions whenever they occur. I expect nothing less with Whelan.

Without question, returning the former Marine to the US is something we all want. The Russian government is notorious for deception, so there is little doubt in my mind he is simply caught up in international gamesmanship.

And as someone who has worked many international kidnapping investigations, I know that the families of those detained couldn't care less about the reasons behind the release of their loved ones. They simply want them back.

However, as many of us continue to watch the Trump-Putin relationship with great suspicion, we cannot lose sight of the various ulterior motives that could be at work here, even as we look forward to welcoming Whelan home.

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