For an American convicted of espionage in Russia, a trade for an arms dealer may be the quickest road to freedom

Jenna McLaughlinNational Security and Investigations Reporter
Yahoo News
Paul Whelan at a Moscow City Court sentencing hearing on Monday. (Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images)
Paul Whelan at a Moscow City Court sentencing hearing on Monday. (Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Almost as soon as American Paul Whelan was sentenced Monday to 16 years on espionage charges in Moscow, questions turned to the possibility of exchanging the former Marine for one or more Russians imprisoned in the U.S.

“I’m in no position to discuss a prisoner exchange,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said in response to a question from a journalist after the verdict was announced. “What we’re looking for is not an exchange; we’re looking for justice for Paul.”

However, despite Sullivan’s comments, Russian officials have been floating the possibility of trading the 50-year-old practically since he was arrested in December 2018 while traveling for a wedding and visiting friends in Moscow. He has been imprisoned in Moscow since his arrest.

Whelan’s Russian appointed defense lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told journalists in January 2019 his goal was not necessarily just to clear Whelan’s name but also to bring home “at least one Russian soul.” At the time, the presumed trade was believed to be for Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Moscow. But Butina served her sentence in a Florida prison and was released and deported back to Russia in October.

Since then, Russian officials have also brought up possibly trading Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trafficker arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the U.S. in 2010 in connection with supplying weapons to Colombian rebels. Other names floated include Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot caught running drugs into the U.S., and Roman Seleznev, a Russian hacker who was arrested while on vacation in the Maldives, among others.

Former intelligence officials told Yahoo News that using Whelan’s arrest as a lever of power fits Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy.

“Russians are sticklers for reciprocity,” said Paul Kolbe, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and a former CIA operations officer who at one point ran the agency’s Central Eurasia division. Based on “past pattern,” he said, it’s possible they may want to trade for someone like the arms trafficker Bout.

“But Viktor Bout is not a Russian official who was captured and is being held for sentencing, he was a guy who was tried, convicted and sentenced,” he said during a phone interview. In order for him to be released, it might require President Trump to intervene, he explained.

Robert Dannenberg, a 24-year CIA veteran who served in Moscow, told Yahoo News he would be opposed to Whelan being traded because he believes it would create “a bad precedent.” A trade could “be putting a lot of innocent Americans at risk of being framed and arrested as ‘exchange bait,’” he wrote in an email.

Whelan is almost certainly not tied to any intelligence agency nor guilty of any crime, and is not equivalent to a Russian spy or criminal, according to Dannenberg. “In my view, spies should be exchanged for spies and it should be done in intelligence channels,” he wrote.

Dan Hoffman, another former high-ranking CIA officer who served in Moscow, said “it’s too early to be talking about spy swaps.”

Russia will likely come to the U.S. eventually with demands, which could come in various forms, he explained. “They see what we’re doing with Iran, we’ve released Iranians, they’ve released U.S. citizens, they’re probably thinking maybe we can do a deal, it doesn’t have to be so linear,” he noted.

They could also demand sanctions relief or the renegotiation of arms treaties. “All they want is leverage and bargaining power,” Hoffman said. 

According to congressional aides following the case, Russian officials have long been posing the possibility of a prisoner swap for Whelan. But the administration’s formal stance appears to be that a swap is not an option, because it could be considered “an admission in some way that Paul is indeed some agent of the U.S. government,” said one of the aides. 

But perhaps more important to the Russians is negotiating directly with the U.S. president. “They want Trump to be directly on it,” the aide said.

Given that Trump and Putin speak with some regularity over the phone, it’s possible that the pair might reach an arrangement outside normal foreign policy channels, and the Russian president could try to extract concessions unrelated to Whelan, like sanctions relief. “That might raise a red flag,” the aide said. 

It appears the Trump administration is engaged in pushing for his release. While top U.S. officials were initially hesitant to comment on the case when Whelan was first arrested, there was a flood of public support in his defense following the sentencing on Monday, including from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and leadership of both the House and Senate committees on foreign affairs, among others. The White House declined to comment further.

“Russia sentencing Paul Whelan, an American citizen, to a 16-year sentence without evidence is a complete outrage but sadly par for the course for a corrupt regime headed by war criminal Vladimir Putin,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement emailed to Yahoo News.

For the last year and a half, Whelan’s siblings have marshaled their resources to make sure that powerful people in Washington don’t forget about their brother. Elizabeth Whelan, an artist living on Martha’s Vineyard, has traveled to Washington, D.C., a total of 15 times to meet with staffers and officials who might be able to help with her brother’s case.

“The only thing that stopped me from doing more was COVID,” she said during a phone interview with Yahoo News. She noticed that by January, her hard work was paying off, and people were calling to give her updates on their progress on the case rather than the other way around.

Elizabeth Whelan said she’s been in touch with Edmond Pope, a former intelligence officer and businessman who was imprisoned in Moscow under similar circumstances 20 years ago. While Pope has tried to keep a low profile, Elizabeth said they regularly exchange emails, analyzing the similarities of their cases and providing support. “This is like reliving a horror story for him,” she said.

Pope, rather than being traded, was pardoned by Putin himself in 2000, who said he was concerned for the man’s health and wanted to maintain good relations with the U.S., at a time when there was more hope about the warming of relations between the former Cold War rivals.

Paul Whelan’s twin brother, David Whelan, an attorney living in Canada who has maintained an ongoing newsletter about his brother’s case, asserted that a prisoner exchange has likely “been the whole point of Paul’s wrongful detention.”

While he and Elizabeth both noted that they would not oppose a trade for their brother’s freedom, they would prefer he be exonerated and released. David told Yahoo News he has seen the names of possible trade candidates, like the arms dealer Bout, in the Russian press so frequently he can now recognize them in Cyrillic — but he doesn’t think any are good possibilities. “They are all too asymmetric,” he wrote in an email.

“Paul has said he is more Mr. Bean than Mr. Bond,” David Whelan wrote in his newsletter on Tuesday. “I do not believe that any government would exchange Mr. Bean for ‘The Merchant of Death.’”

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