Who Is Paul Whelan? Russia Charges American Marine With Espionage as Moscow's Relationship With the U.S. Deteriorates

Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine who was detained in Russia last week, has been charged with espionage, according to the Russian state media agency Interfax.

"An indictment has been presented. Whelan dismisses it," according to an anonymous source familiar with the case who was quoted by Interfax.

Moscow has said that the 48-year-old, who is director of security at the Michigan-based automobile parts supplier BorgWarner, was caught while accepting a USB stick with the names of employees at a secret state organization. Whelan reportedly speaks some Russian and had been traveling to the country for a wedding.

Experts say that it is unlikely that Whelan, who has demonstrated an interest in Russia for years and traveled openly to the country on multiple occasions, was working for the U.S. government. Instead, many suspect that the arrest was retribution for the detention of a 30-year-old Russian woman named Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for attempting to infiltrate Republican political circles on behalf of the Russian government. Butina has agreed to cooperate with investigators in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

"The arrest of an American security specialist and a former Marine, Paul Whelan, in Moscow appears to be a Russian tit for tat in response to the prosecution of Maria Butina," Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.–based think tank the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek. "Mr. Whelan's family claims that he visited Moscow, arriving one week before the wedding he came to attend and staying at the famed Metropol hotel, which is known to be under a heavy surveillance."

"Whelan has an abiding interest in Russia, having visited the country several times, and even had a page on the Russian social media Vkontakte. I am sure that the Russian security service FSB would claim that he was an American intelligence agent," Cohen added.

"The incident highlights the growing confrontation between Moscow in Washington, including in the intelligence arena. The tit for tat operations remind me of the darkest years of the Cold War, when security services in both sides play cat-and-mouse games, making legitimate contact between the two countries and peoples ever more difficult," he added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the U.S. is reviewing the case and will demand Whelan's release if his detention is deemed inappropriate. The U.S. ambassador to Russia has visited Whelan in prison.

Whelan could spend up to 20 years in prison if he is found guilty. He was born in Canada and is believed to have both U.S. and Canadian citizenship. He was dishonorably discharged from the Marines in 2008 for "bad conduct."