The Russian Security Service (FSB) has arrested a US citizen in Moscow for espionage. The FSB (the former KGB) identifies in a statement the detainee as Paul Whelan and explains that he was arrested in the Russian capital on December 28 “while performing espionage work.”
Russian authorities did not give further details but explained to the Russian agency Interfax that a criminal proceeding has been initiated against the detainee, who can face up to 20 years in prison. The United States Embassy in Moscow has not made any comments yet.
The arrest comes amid growing tensions between Russia and the US over Russian interference in US elections in 2016 and also in the case of Russian citizen Maria Butina, 30, arrested last July in the US and that a few weeks ago he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent not authorized to promote the interests of Russia.
The Russian government, which has always defended Butina who came to be connected with the US arms lobby – and has denied that she was a Russian agent, has brandished her case as an example of “Russophobia” and has assured that the young woman -that has even become the social media image of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which launched the #freeMariaButina campaign – was pressured, and even tortured, to plead guilty.
It also adds to the growing cases of espionage by Russia uncovered after the poisoning of former Sergéi Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury (United Kingdom) last March, by two men that British intelligence identified as members of Russian military espionage ( known as GRU).
The Kremlin has always denied any link with the poisoning, and the case caused a major scandal that led to new sanctions and expulsions of Russian diplomats from a number of Western countries, which had a symmetrical response from Russia. The Skripal case contributed to stress the relations between Russia and the European Union, very complicated after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Western countries of resorting to issues such as alleged espionage to try to undermine Russia’s power. “This is linked to the assertion of Russia’s power,” Putin said at his annual press conference in mid-December. The Russian president also denied at that time that the Russian authorities will apply the principle of “an eye for an eye” for the arrest of Russian citizens in the US. However, in recent months the FSB has reported an increase in espionage activities of other countries in Russian territory.