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3 big questions about the curious Paul Whelan ‘spy’ case

- January 6, 2019

Just days into the new year, foreign policy analysts are already rerunning a decades-old show: “What’s Russia thinking?”

The prompt this time around was the New Year’s Eve arrest of Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine with four passports and a professed love for Russia who allegedly came to Moscow to attend a wedding but ended up getting arrested and accused of obtaining a USB drive containing the full staff directory of one of Russia’s many secret services. Why Whelan? Why now? What happens next?

The academic’s answer to the “What’s Russia thinking?” question is invariably “We don’t know” — at least not in the theory-driven, hypothesis-testing, evidence-based way we usually think about knowledge. We do not and cannot know who ordered Whelan’s arrest and on what basis. We don’t know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved. And we can’t calculate exactly what the Kremlin — or the White House, for that matter — will do next.

The conventional wisdom: An asset for a spy swap

That, of course, hasn’t stopped the punditariat from jumping to what may seem like an obvious conclusion: Russian security picked up Whelan to gain an asset to trade for Maria Butina, a Russian arrested in the United States in July and accused of running clandestine influence operations in Washington without registering as a foreign agent. Indeed, it is very hard to find another explanation in the U.S. media.

The evidence behind this theory is thin, however. Many reporters and pundits are interpreting the Russian government’s indignation over the Butina case — including the Foreign Ministry pushing a #FreeMariaButina hashtag and Putin’s own statements — to indicate Moscow’s intent to retaliate. Others point to history, particularly the 1986 arrest of U.S. journalist Nick Daniloff on spying charges and the quick exchange for Soviet diplomat Gennady Zakharov.

That approach, however, assumes that domestic decision-making is driven by foreign policy imperatives — an assumption that is rarely if ever true. My own approach to Russian foreign policy begins from the argument that in Russia, as in most other countries, domestic factors are in the driver’s seat. When we see Whelan’s arrest from a Russian vantage point — rather than from the banks of the Potomac — three big questions emerge:

1. Why is Moscow being so quiet about the arrest?

The most glaring fact about the Whelan case is how little noise it is making in Russia. Previous espionage cases were instant media circuses. Remember the arrest of U.S. diplomat Ryan Fogle in 2013, caught in the street in a blond wig and carrying a map and compass? Or the trio of British diplomats accused in 2006 of using a fake rock and a network of human rights and media activists to gather intelligence? Or Edmond Pope, the Pennsylvania businessman arrested in 2000 and accused of trying to buy the plans for a hypersonic torpedo?

In all of those cases, agents of the Russian FSB, one of the successors to the Soviet-era KGB, tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence, were followed closely — or in some cases even preceded — by Russian TV cameras, which beamed the purported evidence across the world before the U.S. and British governments could respond.

But not in this case: Whelan hardly made the television news in Russia; we saw no pictures of his arrest or even of the offending flash drive; and what information has leaked out has been mostly through Rosbalt, a marginal if well-connected news website. None of this suggests a well-prepared operation.

2. Is a spy swap in keeping with past Russian behavior?

What else do we know? History and official rhetoric suggest that the Kremlin takes reciprocity and parity very seriously, and spy swaps are infrequent. In fact, the only spy swap between Russia and a Western government since the fall of the U.S.S.R. took place in 2010, when Moscow was forced to scrounge up four convicted spies to exchange for 10 sleeper agents, including Anna Chapman, who had been caught in the United States.

In that case, Moscow never denied that the 10 were Russian spies. The people sent West in exchange — all of them Russian citizens, including Sergei Skripal — were convicted of similar offenses at home. But Moscow has steadfastly denied the charges against Butina, who in any case did not go on trial for espionage. A Whelan-for-Butina swap, then, would be heavily out of whack, and thus out of keeping with Russian diplomatic practice.

3. Or are Russian security services settling domestic scores?

What we seem to be seeing is a much more haphazard process than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Rather than an order coming from Putin’s own office to arrest and make an example of an American citizen before organizing a swap for Butina, most of the domestic evidence points to a political machine caught off guard by events on the ground.

If the Kremlin itself didn’t order Whelan’s arrest, what’s the alternative explanation? One other thing we know is that all is not well in the world of Russia’s secret services. The various branches — the FSB counterintelligence agency, the SVR foreign intelligence service and the GRU military intelligence agency, most prominently — have always competed for prestige, turf and money.

Faced with tightening budgets, Russia’s security agencies and even ambitious individual officers have evidently climbed over one another to prove their value, with the GRU taking center stage in 2018 — albeit with decidedly mixed results. It was the GRU, after all, that was responsible for the Novichok nerve agent attack on Skripal in Salisbury, England, and for a string of spy scandals in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands.

It would thus be far from surprising if there were also FSB agents looking to demonstrate their own worth by, say, arresting an American spy within a stone’s throw of the Kremlin. That last bit, of course, is speculation. And that’s the point: All of this is speculation. Spy stories always are.

Samuel Greene, reader in Russian politics and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, tweets at @samagreene.