Russia says it arrested a U.S. citizen spying in their country. But former CIA officers say that, far from a counterintelligence coup, the American’s detention is most likely payback for the U.S. arrest of confessed Russian agent Maria Butina.
In a short statement Monday, Russia’s Tass news agency said authorities arrested American Paul Whelan “in Moscow while on a spy mission” and that he faces a sentence of up to 20 years in prison if convicted. A State Department spokesperson said the department has been “formally notified of the detention” and has requested access to Whelan.
“This wasn’t planned yesterday. It was probably planned back after [Butina] was arrested,” Dan Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief for the CIA, told The Daily Beast. “They want to deter future U.S. actions against other private citizens.”
Butina pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow and signed a broad cooperation agreement with the Justice Department. Prosecutors said she tried to build a backchannel between Kremlin officials and Republican operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign. Russian officials have lodged a number of protests with the State Department about the conditions of her detention (she’s spent weeks in solitary confinement), and President Vladimir Putin said his intelligence services had no association with her.