US citizen detained on espionage charges to face Russian court

Paul Whelan’s espionage trial begins today, after the American national has spent more than a year in custody in Moscow’s

Paul Whelan russia

Photo: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters

Paul Whelan’s espionage trial begins today, after the American national has spent more than a year in custody in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison.

Whelan’s December 2018 arrest and subsequent charge of espionage are thought to be Moscow’s retaliation for the trial of Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pleaded guilty to acting as a foreign agent in the US. Whelan’s family has hoped for US intervention on his behalf, but Washington has only insisted he is not a US agent and refrained thus far from labelling him as “wrongfully detained”.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have soured ever since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Whelan’s release was expected once Butina was returned to Russia in October 2019, but with his appeal rejected, a guilty verdict is likely.

Although a guilty verdict would further strain an already tested relationship, Washington is unlikely to retaliate substantially to the outcome of Paul Whelan’s trial. Although President Donald Trump signed off on a suite of sanctions passed by Congress in 2017, whether or not he will formally respond to such a verdict is unclear, given his history of being a soft-spoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Indeed, a condemnation from the US Congress is probable, but lawmakers are unlikely to go so far as to pass additional sanctions.

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