US citizen arrested for espionage in Russia is caught between Trump and the Kremlin as the president maintains 'deferential relationship' with Putin
President Donald Trump has had a much friendlier relationship with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who was much more critical of the Russian government. But so far, Trump’s Putin-friendly tone hasn’t helped Paul Whelan — a U.S. citizen and security specialist who has been imprisoned in Moscow for almost a year on suspicion of espionage. And his older sister, Elizabeth Whelan, journalist Elaina Plott reports in an article for The Atlantic, has been spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C. in the hope of helping him.
Paul Whelan, now 49, was in Moscow on December 28, 2018 to attend the wedding of a friend, who was marrying a Russian woman. But Whelan never made it to the wedding: that day, he was arrested by Russian intelligence officers. And he was taken to Lefortovo Prison, which was known for holding political prisoners back when the Soviet Union was still in existence.
Plott notes that Elizabeth Whelan, a 57-year-old portrait artist, has “trekked back and forth” between Martha’s Vineyard (where she lives) and Washington, D.C. to “plead her brother’s case to the White House, Congress, the State Department — anyone who will listen.” And Elizabeth Whelan, according to Plott, has “made some inroads on Capitol Hill: the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution demanding that the Russian government either present “credible evidence” against her brother or release him.
One of the people Elizabeth Whelan has met with is Trump ally and GOP activist David Urban. But Trump, Plott notes, has so far “stayed silent” and has maintained a “deferential relationship” with Putin and the Kremlin.
Paul Whelan previously worked as security director for a manufacturing company. But former CIA official Dan Hoffman told Plott that the chances of Whelan being a spy for the U.S. government are “zero.”
“There’s no evidence to indicate that he was doing anything wrong at all,” Hoffman told Plott. “He’s not the only one who’s been arrested on false accusations; of course, Russians do that to their own citizens all the time.”
Plott also points out that something in Paul Whelan’s background would probably prevent him from being a CIA agent. Formerly enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, he was court-martialed in 2008 because of charges related to larceny — and such a charge would likely prevent him from being accepted by the CIA. Moreover, Plott reports, the CIA would be unlikely to send an agent abroad without diplomatic cover, which Whelan obviously didn’t have.
Elizabeth Whelan, with her brother still imprisoned in Moscow, continues to visit Washington, D.C. in the hope of helping him.
“It’s very difficult for somebody like me, you know, the older sister — my younger brother in this situation,” she told Plott. “How does a person even start — a regular person suddenly blindsided by having their brother put in a Russian jail? When I come to D.C., I try to keep a positive mental attitude. I try to be upbeat about what I’m doing. I tell myself it’s business that I’m here to perform, but sometimes, it overwhelms me.”