According to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Paul Whelan is an American spy. This week Lavrov said the 50-year-old former Marine was caught “red-handed” when he was arrested on Dec. 28, 2018, in possession of a flash drive containing Russian state secrets. On Monday, Whelan was sentenced in a secret trial to 16 years in prison.

That is the official Russian story. And like many official Russian stories, it strains credulity. The more likely explanation for Whelan’s nightmare is that he was framed, and is now caught up in an unfortunate diplomatic showdown. His fate depends on how well the Trump administration navigates its relationship with an adversary the president has tried to cajole.

As Whelan’s Russian defense attorney has said, Whelan was in Moscow in 2018 for a wedding. A former friend who is also a Russian federal security officer, handed him a flash drive that he was told contained photos from a vacation. When Russian FSB officers then entered his hotel room, Whelan was arrested.

While it might be strange for average American tourists to befriend FSB officers, Whelan was in the private security business. He visited Russia often and counted as friends many law enforcement and security officials there.

His brother, David Whelan, told me this week that he believes his brother’s ordeal likely began as an act of self-serving treachery by the former Russian friend, Ilya Yatsenko. Paul Whelan had purchased one or two iPhones (reports from the secret trial vary) for Yatsenko. Instead of repaying Whelan, Yatsenko set him up. “This is possibly about getting a promotion by entrapping my brother,” David Whelan said.

A crucial detail that has been uncovered by a Russian newspaper lends some credibility here. Last month, Kommersat reported that Yatsenko was a major in the FSB’s “Department K.” This department has a history of putting its foes in compromising positions. The best known example is a tax scam that the department ran in the 2000s in which $230 million in tax payments was stolen by Russia’s equivalent of the IRS. Russian authorities went to great lengths to hide the scheme, arresting Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who had uncovered it on behalf of an investment firm whose tax revenues were stolen. Magnitsky died while in custody.

There are some similarities with Whelan’s case. Magnitsky’s supporters say he died because he was beaten and denied life-saving medical procedures. On May 27, Whelan received hernia surgery while in prison, and there is reason to think that surgery was inadequate. In a photograph from the trial, Whelan held up a sign that read in part “Meatball Surgery,” a military term that refers to battlefield operations conducted hastily to stabilize a patient, but not to address the root medical problem.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday also called attention to Whelan’s medical state. He said Whelan’s detention “has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition, and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends.”

For now, Whelan is a pawn in the deteriorating U.S.-Russia relationship. Russian officials have indicated that Moscow is open to a prisoner swap for Whelan. Last year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister suggested a U.S. prisoner could be exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a sentence for drug trafficking. This week, Whalen’s attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov also said a possible prisoner swap could include Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker. “I also heard proposals on the sidelines of conducting an exchange instead of appealing,” Zherebenkov said this week. “Whether it’ll be an exchange only for Bout or for Yaroshenko too, I don’t know.”

David Whelan said Paul’s family takes no position on a possible prisoner swap. “We would not want to suggest America should take a risk by releasing someone who is a terrible person,” he said.

As important as it is to bring Whelan home, it sets a dangerous precedent for the U.S. to negotiate for Whelan’s release as if he were a spy. It would be lending legitimacy to a sham trial and encourage Russia to make more sham arrests going forward. A better approach would be to impose sanctions on the FSB officials responsible for framing Whelan.

If Russia’s diplomats would use a framed American tourist as a pawn to seek the release of an arms dealer or drug trafficker, why would American diplomats trust them to adhere to any future bargain?

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

Load comments