A U.S. citizen was detained in Russia on charges of spying, according to NPR. Paul Nicholas Whelan was arrested in Moscow on December 28 for espionage, Russia’s Federal Security Service announced on Monday, a charge that can carry up 20 years in prison if Whelan is convicted.
The FSB released a brief statement saying that Whelan had been taken into custody after essentially being caught red-handed in the process of spying, saying that the suspect was detained “during an act of espionage” under article 276 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Representatives say that the U.S. has requested access to Whelan under the Vienna Convention.
“We are aware of the detention of a U.S. citizen by Russian authorities,” a representative for the State Department said.
“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access. We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it.”
Neither the State Department nor the FSB provided any additional details, citing privacy concerns.
Whelan’s arrest comes as tensions simmer between Russia and the United States as election hacking and the influence of American elections and leaders continues to draw headlines.
One case, in particular, that of Maria Butina, has raised eyebrows after it was discovered that the Russian woman schemed to build a relationship between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russian government. Butina worked with her boyfriend, GOP fundraiser Paul Erickson, to create what she calls “unofficial channels of communication” to strengthen ties between the two countries.
Butina allegedly cultivated relationships with NRA members, even going so far as to host gun rights advocates in Moscow in 2015.
She wrote to Russian handler Alexander Torshin that “we should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
Maria Butina has pleaded guilty to being part of a conspiracy to infiltrate and manipulate American democracy. Butina admitted today she was a Russian agent who used the NRA. Americans need to know: Who at the NRA knew Butina’s agenda, and what did they get in return?
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 13, 2018
Butina pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this month after being arrested over the summer. She will likely face six months in prison and deportation. The Russian government has campaigned around Butina, denying that she was working for Moscow and organizing social media efforts to secure her release.
A few weeks prior to Whelan’s arrest last week, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said that the country believed in the law of retaliation, though there is no evidence that his statement and Whelan’s arrest are related.
“The law of retaliation states, ‘An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,'” he said in his annual year-end address, adding, “we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”