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Russia Arrests American On Spying Charges


Russia has arrested an American on spying charges. The FSB, the Russian Security Service, put out a short statement saying a man named Paul Whelan had been caught on Friday, quote, "during an espionage operation." No other details. Here in Washington, the State Department also put out a short statement saying essentially they are aware of the arrest.

Well, reporter Charles Maynes is in Moscow keeping track on this. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I am well. Thank you. So very thin details on this, but lay out - just lay it all on me, absolutely everything we know about this arrest.

MAYNES: Well, I got to say, most of your lead probably laid out what we do know. As you know, his name, according to the FSB, is Paul Whelan. He was caught spying by the Russian FSB. Under Russian law, we know that espionage charges can carry between 10 and 20 years in prison. And we know from the State Department and the U.S. embassy here in Moscow citing the State Department that they've confirmed they were informed about the arrest of an American citizen, but then they've requested consular access to this American citizen. But that's about what we know so far. That's it.

KELLY: The name Paul Whelan, has that ever crossed the radar before? Do we know anything about him or where he's being held?

MAYNES: Well, we don't, and we don't know even know that he's, for example, on the embassy staff here yet. It's worth pointing out that the identity was provided by the FSB in Cyrillic lettering and then translated back into English. So we can't even say for sure, A, that it's Paul Whelan. No one from the U.S. side is confirming that. And, B, we don't know even whether the spelling of Whelan's last name is correct. So there are a lot of questions here.

KELLY: One thing we do know is this comes days after Maria Butina, the Russian national, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a Russian agent here in the U.S. Might these cases be related?

MAYNES: Well, the timing is certainly interesting, and there are certainly people here in Moscow who are speculating this might be some kind of related event. But it's also...

KELLY: Like a tit for tat. You arrested...

MAYNES: A tit for tat.

KELLY: ...One of ours. We'll arrest one of yours, type thing.

MAYNES: Exactly, but it's worth pointing out that Ms. Butina is convicted - admitted to being a foreign agent, not conducting espionage per se. President Putin in a year-end press conference was asked about this, suggested there would be no eye-for-an-eye over the Butina incident in the sense that she was not guilty of espionage.

But, you know, it's also important pointing out that, you know, this comes after a year of pretty bad press for the Russian secret services, the FSB or the GRU, particularly over the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury in the U.K.

There was a lot of sleuthing done by these digital forensics teams, like Bellingcat and their Russian partners here in Moscow. And they seem to, you know, point to these kind of two, clumsy Russian agents. So they haven't looked very good. So maybe this was just a way to say, you know, look, we're still on the job and doing it well.

KELLY: How unusual is this? When was the last time an American was arrested in Russia for espionage?

MAYNES: Well, you know, as you know, I mean, we've been talking - there've been plenty of espionage-related cases. But the last time we've had a real arrest of an American goes back to 2013. This was when a member of the - of the U.S. consulate here in Moscow, Ryan Fogle, was arrested. People may remember more the details of this arrest. He was caught wearing a wig with a compass and wearing a hat. So it was a bit more of kind of a kind of old-school caper.

KELLY: And to circle you back to - you mentioned Vladimir Putin's year-end news conference. He did talk about the law of retaliation. Is it possible that something like that is playing out here?

MAYNES: Well, certainly, and that's something that people don't exclude. But again, from the Russian perspective, they've always argued that Ms. Butina is innocent, sort of a wrong place, wrong time, just wanted better relations. It's a case of citizen diplomacy being clipped by overzealous U.S. Secret Service. So, in that sense, you know, their argument here is there's no parity to work with.

KELLY: Moscow knows the U.S. has plenty of spies there. The U.S. knows Russia has plenty of spies here in the U.S. But when something like this becomes public, when there's an arrest, when there's a however terse statement, it makes you wonder what else is going on behind the scenes.

MAYNES: That's right. And, you know, again, we think back to, over the last year, we've seen, you know, nearly a hundred Russian diplomats expelled from various countries in Europe and the U.S. And we've seen, certainly, dozens of American diplomats expelled. And the assumption here has always been that several of those, certainly many of them, were part of the secret services and part of spycraft from the U.S. side. And of course, the same thing on the Russian side.

KELLY: Reporter Charles Maynes talking to us from Moscow. Thanks so much, and Happy New Year.

MAYNES: Thanks. Happy New Year to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.