Paul Whelan, American Accused of Spying, Is Said to Be Charged in Russia

MOSCOW — The Russian authorities have brought espionage charges against an American citizen, Paul N. Whelan, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, the news agency Interfax reported on Thursday.

Mr. Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir A. Zherebenkov, who said he spent much of Wednesday with Mr. Whelan, said he had found his client in an upbeat mood despite the long legal road that he faces.

“I was surprised to see him being so confident,” said Mr. Zherebenkov, a high-profile criminal defense lawyer.

Mr. Whelan, 48, the head of global security for the Michigan auto parts maker BorgWarner and a Marine Corps veteran, was arrested last Friday and is being held in solitary confinement in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison. Russia’s domestic security agency, the F.S.B., issued a brief statement on Monday saying that Mr. Whelan had been caught in “an act of espionage” but provided no other details.

Mr. Zherebenkov said that he had not seen all the evidence, but that he suspected that the American had been under surveillance for some time.

“I presume that he is innocent, because for now I haven’t seen any evidence against him that would prove otherwise,” said Mr. Zherebenkov, who said that Mr. Whelan would petition the court for bail.

Rosbalt, a Russian news agency close to the security services, quoted an unidentified intelligence source on Wednesday as saying that Mr. Whelan had been apprehended during a meeting with a Russian citizen in his room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He is accused of trying to recruit this person to obtain classified information about staff members at various Russian agencies, the account said.

Mr. Whelan was arrested five minutes after receiving a USB stick containing a list of all the employees at a classified security agency, the report said.

Unusually for an occasional visitor to Russia, Mr. Whelan had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, for about a decade. The account showed that he was last active at 4:55 p.m. on Dec. 28, the day the F.S.B. said he was arrested.

Rosbalt quoted its security source as saying it was considered odd that Mr. Whelan did not use the social media site to try to meet women. Rather, he sought to ingratiate himself into the lives of his contacts on the site.

Most of those contacts seemed to be men with some sort of connection to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Ministry of Defense or the Civil Aviation Authority.

Mr. Whelan’s family said that he had been in Russia to attend the wedding of a friend from the Marine Corps who was marrying a Russian woman at the storied Metropol Hotel. Mr. Whelan knew his way around Moscow, they said, and offered to help wedding guests navigate the city.

Russians who knew him via social media sites over the past decade said he seemed to pop up every six months or so and enjoyed traveling around Russia, especially by train. Not all of them met him in person, however, so it remained unclear just how often he had visited. One contact said that on this trip, Mr. Whelan had written that he had planned to stay in Moscow through the New Year and then head for St. Petersburg.

There has been widespread speculation that Russia seized Mr. Whelan to exchange him for Maria Butina, a Russian citizen jailed in the United States. Ms. Butina, 30, pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 in Federal District Court in Washington to a single charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. She admitted to being involved in an organized effort, backed by Russian officials, to lobby influential Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.

She faces six months in prison, most likely followed by deportation. An espionage conviction in Russia carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years.

Russia has denied that Ms. Butina acted in any official capacity. While there is no apparent connection between her case and Mr. Whelan’s, Russia has a history of arresting foreigners to exchange them for its citizens held elsewhere.

Mr. Whelan’s lawyer said that he would welcome an exchange, but that it would take time. The shortest possible timetable for the legal case would be six months to a year, he said, after which the issue of an exchange might be broached. Such a deal would require a pardon from President Vladimir V. Putin.

“This is a long process,” Mr. Zherebenkov said. “I myself hope that we can rescue and bring home one Russian soul.”

He said it was standard procedure for a new inmate facing espionage charges to be held in solitary confinement. Mr. Whelan has access to a library at Lefortovo, a rare prison in Russia to have been at least partly refurbished.

Lefortovo has long served as the main place to hold suspects arrested by the domestic security agency, the F.S.B., and its predecessor, the K.G.B. Numerous famous Russians and foreigners have been jailed there, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel laureate and dissident sent into exile abroad by the Soviet Union.

Mr. Zherebenkov said that Mr. Whelan spoke conversational Russian, but that the legal work was done through a translator.

The American ambassador to Russia, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., visited Mr. Whelan in prison on Wednesday, the State Department said in a statement that did not provide further details.

Mr. Zherebenkov described his client as “a sociable man.”

“He wanted to learn more about Russia, he was interested in the country, its culture and the Orthodox faith,” he said, noting that Mr. Whelan had visited Sergiyev Posad, the spiritual seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, north of Moscow.

Mr. Whelan’s military career ended badly. He was court-martialed in 2008 on charges related to larceny and discharged from the Marine Corps for bad conduct, his rank demoted to private from staff sergeant.

He had done two tours in Iraq, and one of his initial trips to Russia seemed to come in 2006, when he visited for two weeks as part of a special furlough program.

Mr. Whelan had at least 70 friends on Vkontakte, the social media website, although the number dropped rapidly as word of his arrest spread. He did not post often, but wrote congratulatory notes in Russian on various major holidays and occasionally voiced his opinions about American politics.

“GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” he wrote on the day of the president’s inauguration, in January 2017, bracketing the sentence with two American flags. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he posted a Russian cartoon suggesting that Alaska might be next, as it was once a Russian territory. “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!!” Mr. Whelan wrote.

Last August, he wrote that his cat, Mittens, a pet for 16 years, had passed away. “Farewell to a loyal friend of many years,” Mr. Whelan posted.

He shared some biographical information as well, saying he was a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., and had graduated from the University of Michigan. Oddly, both Mr. Whelan and Ms. Butina, the Russian arrested in the United States, seemed to be true fans of the countries that threw them in jail.

Some of the Russians who befriended Mr. Whelan on Vkontakte did not want to speak at all, one offered to sell information about him and a few offered some details about their encounters.

Sergei Artyomenko, 26, a Moscow hair stylist, said Mr. Whelan had followed him on Instagram six years ago while he was doing his military service. They had never met in person, although they had a running joke about him getting a haircut. “I am not sure how he found me, but he would initiate small talk every six months or so,” Mr. Artyomenko wrote, adding that they mostly discussed cool places to travel.

Mr. Whelan contacted him last Friday, but the Russian was again too busy to meet. “He didn’t tell me why he came here, but has been always saying that he likes Russia and Siberia,” he said.

Most of those he reached out to said he seemed like a friendly, open American interested in learning the Russian language and traveling around the country. He liked traveling by train, one man said, even collecting the distinctive metal tea glass holders used on Russian railways, often with images from Russian history stamped on them.

Another man, who did not want to be identified by name, said that he had shown Mr. Whelan the sights around his provincial city a decade ago, but had not seen him since.

“We spoke English and discussed some broad topics — life in Russia and the U.S., culture, language, personal things,” the acquaintance said. He added that Mr. Whelan talked about many of the details in his life that have since emerged in public.

“I never had any suspicions about Paul,” he said.

Follow Neil MacFarquhar on Twitter: @NeilMacFarquhar.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow and Ivan Nechepurenko from St. Petersburg.

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