Russia Says Detained American 'Spy' Is Guilty: 'We Never Use People as Pawns'

The Kremlin has dismissed suggestions it has held an American citizen on espionage charges in an effort to obtain leverage over its Western adversaries.

On Wednesday, a government spokesperson rejected allegations made by British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt that the Kremlin was using Paul Whelan—a former Marine from Michigan who holds both U.S. and British citizenship—as a diplomatic pawn.

Read More: Russia says they haven't heard from U.S. about Paul Whelan since first visit, other countries asked to see alleged spy

"In Russia, we never use people as pawns in diplomatic games," Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday, according to Reuters. "In Russia we conduct counter-intelligence activity against those suspected of espionage. That is done regularly."

Hunt said last week that the British government was "extremely worried" about Whelan's well-being. He also suggested that the Kremlin might have detained Whelan as leverage to negotiate the release of Maria Butina, a Russian who has pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered agent for the Kremlin in the U.S.

Whelan was arrested on December 28 in Moscow. According to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Whelan was detained while "on a spy mission". The agency also suggested he had been caught "during an act of espionage."

The Russian government has not yet shed any further light on the circumstances of his arrest. But according to The Washington Post, 48-year-old Whelan was arrested in his room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He had allegedly just taken possession of a flash drive containing a list of employees for a secret Russian agency.

But Whelan's family has denied all allegations against him, claiming he was only in Russia to attend the wedding of a friend. Earlier this month, his twin brother, David, told the BBC that the family had only learned of Paul's arrest through press reports.

He also said his brother had traveled to Russia regularly since 2007, both for pleasure and for business as part of his work in corporate security and the automotive industry. He was reportedly planning to visit St. Petersburg before flying home to the U.S. on January 6.

David said he could not see how his brother—who also previously worked in law enforcement in the U.S.—could have fallen afoul of the Russian authorities. "I can't imagine how someone with a law enforcement background who is also a former U.S. Marine, and who is now working in corporate security and is also aware of the risks of travel, would have broken any law, let alone the law related to espionage," David told the BBC.

The U.S. government has called on Russia to provide more information on the arrest and demanded access to Whelan. At the start of this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that "if the detention is not appropriate, we will demand his immediate return."

But Russian officials have claimed they have not heard from their U.S. counterparts on the matter since consular staff were first able to see Whelan. On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, "As of now, only representatives from the United States have visited Paul Whelan upon a request. The U.S. side has not contacted the Russian side on that matter anymore."

Dmitry Peskov
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov at an event near Moscow on December 7, 2017. Peskov has denied that detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan was being held as a diplomatic pawn. SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images