American Is Arrested in Moscow on Spying Charges

The arrest of a Russian citizen, Maria Butina, shown in a booking photograph, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia this year.

MOSCOW — An American citizen has been detained in Moscow on espionage charges, Russia’s domestic security agency said Monday, just a few weeks after a Russian operative was convicted of conspiracy in the United States.

In a brief statement, the Russian agency said that an American, identified as Paul Nicholas Whelan, had been taken into custody on Friday on suspicion of spying. The statement implied that he had been caught red-handed, saying that the arrest had occurred “during an act of espionage.”

A criminal case has been opened against Mr. Whelan, said the statement from the F.S.B., or Federal Security Service, which gave no other details. Under Russian law, convictions in spying cases can carry prison terms of up to 20 years.

In a statement, Mr. Whelan’s family identified him as a former Marine. He was in Moscow to attend a wedding but had not been in contact with his family since Friday, the statement said, describing his silence as something that was “very much out of character for him even when he was traveling.”

The family said it learned of Mr. Whelan’s arrest on Monday from news reports, adding that it was in contact with the American authorities. “We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” the family said in the statement. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”

A press officer for the State Department in Washington said by email on Monday that it was aware the Russian authorities had detained an American citizen. “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.”

Further details about the case could not be provided because of privacy concerns, the press officer said.

Credit...Alexandria Sheriff's Office, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The arrest comes during an extended period of tension in relations between Moscow and Washington, particularly over the issues of election hacking and influence peddling.

A Russian citizen, Maria 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 try to lobby influential Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.

She faces six months in prison, most likely followed by deportation.

The Russian government, while strenuously denying that Ms. Butina is a Russian agent, has organized a social media campaign to win her release. While there is no apparent connection between her case and Mr. Whelan’s, in the past, Russian authorities have arrested foreigners with an eye toward trading prisoners with other countries.

During his annual year-end news conference in Moscow on Dec. 20, President Vladimir V. Putin said, “the law of retaliation states, ‘An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,’” but he added, “we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”

He also said that Ms. Butina had not been following any instructions from the Russian government or its agencies, and noted that she was fighting to avoid prison.

“I do not understand why they put her there in the first place,” Mr. Putin said. “There were simply no grounds for it.”

The United States is entangled in other prominent cases of detentions that appear to be arbitrary and retaliatory actions taken by authoritarian governments.

The detention of Mr. Whelan took place weeks after Chinese security forces detained two Canadians in what appeared to be a reprisal related to the arrest on Dec. 1 in the Vancouver airport of a well-known Chinese technology executive. That arrest was made at the behest of the United States, which is seeking the extradition of the executive, Meng Wanzhou, in relation to violations of American sanctions on Iran.

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