Russian state media reported Saturday that the U.S. arrested a Russian national the day after American Paul Whelan was detained on espionage accusations in Moscow—raising new questions about a possible prisoner swap.
Whelan’s family, however, told The Daily Beast that they are not pressuring the Trump administration for an exchange.
“I think we just want Paul home. I don’t know that we have a hierarchy of what the preferred way to get him home would be,” brother David Whelan said in a phone interview.
“At the end of the day, I think we just want Paul to come back across the American border and be with his family, and I’m not sure that we really have thoughts about the different means.”
Former CIA officials have suggested that Whelan—a security executive who was bounced from the Marines on a court-martial—was arrested as revenge for the U.S. prosecution of Russia activist Maria Butina and to force a possible swap.
On Saturday, the news agency TASS brought to light the U.S. arrest of a different Russian national—Dmitrii Makarenko—and said the Kremlin had requested access.
Makareno, who was indicted in 2017 for allegedly exporting military items and laundering money, was picked up Dec. 28 in the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the U.S.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov issued a caution, saying Russians with possible legal issues reconsider traveling to the U.S. “as there are no safe places, in fact, no guarantees.”
The state news agency RIA-Novosti also quoted Ryabov as saying that any talk of a swap is premature. “As to the possibility of exchanges of one sort of another, it’s impossible and incorrect to consider the question now, when an official charge hasn’t even been presented,” he said.
Whelan traveled to Moscow to attend the wedding of a friend, according to his family, who said he could not possibly be a spy. David Whelan said he knows of three trips to Russia by his brother—who The Daily Beast has reported appears to have befriended Russians online. He added that his brother enjoyed world travel, and had visited India and Iceland as well as Russia.
Russian media has reported that intelligence officials allege that Whelan tried to cultivate friendships with Russians he believed could have secrets and that he was caught in a hotel room with a flash drive that contained the names of government employees.
He has been visited by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and has also requested to see diplomats from Canada, where he was born and has citizenship, and from England and Ireland, where he also reportedly obtained citizenship through his ancestry.
David Whelan said his family has been in touch with members of Congress from Michigan. Sen. Marco Rubio also reached out, but they have not heard from the White House, he said.
The family, he said, is “pleased” with the attention they have gotten from American diplomats in Moscow and has received little information about the accusations against his brother.
“I don’t believe anybody’s had access to him since Wednesday,” he said. “It’s my understanding that the four embassies are coordinating with the Americans taking the lead because he entered Russia on an American passport and that they’re going to sort of work out an arrangement for who sees him and how. And we’re frankly pleased that there will be so many governments keeping an eye on Paul’s rights and on his state inside the Russian jail.”
In the Moscow jail, known for its harsh conditions, Paul Whelan is being held in a cell by himself, his brother said. The State Department helped the family set up an account so they can send him money to buy necessities, like toilet paper and razors, he said.