Russia has been taking Ukrainians hostage since 2014. Now they’ve seized an American
Little is known about the arrest in Moscow of US citizen Paul Whelan. Enough, however, to see disturbing similarities with Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko in 2016. Russia accused both men of espionage, with the charges in each case apparently linked to a memory stick or disk the men were ‘found’ with. If initial reports are correct, then both men may have been set up by people whom they had known for a long time. Both American and Ukrainian had been held for three days before the FSB reported their arrest. Although this may well have been to put pressure on the men to ‘confess’, in contrast to the fate of very many Ukrainians taken prisoner since 2014, physical torture was probably not used.
The Russian website Rosbalt, citing an unnamed source in the security service, reported on 3 January that Whelan had been arrested in the Metropol Hotel while receiving a memory stick with a list of all the staff of a secret Russian department. The information, which had supposedly “long been the object of close interest to the American security service”, is classified as a state secret.
Whelan had been seized on 28 December, but this was only made public on 31 December. He is charged with espionage under Article 276 of Russia’s criminal code.
The FSB story, according to Rosbalt’s source, is that on the day of his arrest, Whelan “met with a Russian citizen whom he had become acquainted with quite a while ago. Whelan had on several occasions tried to recruit this friend and use him as an agent to receive information concerning the staff of various departments and services. That time, the US citizen received a memory stick directly in the hotel room, with this containing a list of all the staff of one of the secret departments. Five minutes after being handed this, FSB officers burst into the room and arrested the suspect”.
Whelan’s family insist that the former marine, who is now working for a private US security company, had come to Moscow on 22 December solely to attend the wedding of a former marine colleague.
Numerous political commentators have expressed scepticism over this arrest. It would be quite out of keeping for the US to have used a person without diplomatic immunity to obtain information. It is possible that Whelan’s own spotted background would have also been a deterrent. Many analysts see his arrest as directly connected with the arrest and prosecution in the USA of Russian citizen, Maria Butina.
Butina was arrested in the USA in July 2017, and has been in custody ever since. That would suggest that if Whelan’s arrest is aimed at securing an exchange of prisoners, this is not because Moscow is concerned about their citizen’s well-being. On 13 December 2018, Butina pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for less prison time. Her ‘value’ may lie in what Russia wants to make sure she does not divulge.
It is quite possible that we will learn no more about the charges against Whelan. For the FSB, prosecutions of Ukrainians on ‘spying’ charges have certainly proven the least difficult of the over 70 politically motivated prosecutions of Ukrainians since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Lawyers are prevented from divulging any information before, during or after the ‘trial’, and any court hearings are held behind closed doors. Under such circumstances, it is also easy for the FSB to ensure that the imprisoned men do not have independent lawyers. This is of enormous importance, since the state-appointed lawyers are generally used to put pressure on the men to ‘admit guilt’ and to ‘not notice’ the illegal methods of coercion used against at very least one of the men, Valentin Vyhivsky.
Such secrecy is perfect for Moscow. Convictions and long sentences would be guaranteed in any case, but here there is usually minimum adverse attention. It is hard to demonstrate that charges are unfounded if you don’t really know what they are. It also means that the methods used to obtain ’confessions’ cannot be proven. The first of Russia’s Ukrainian spying victims was Yuri Soloshenko, a 72-year-old pensioner from Poltava who had almost certainly been tricked into coming to Moscow in August 2014 by a Russian acquaintance. The FSB prevented human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov from seeing Soloshenko and placed the latter under such extreme pressure that eventually he agreed to a state-appointed lawyer and to admit to the mystery spying charges. He was only released, after 18 months imprisonment, because he was suffering from cancer. Vyhivsky was effectively abducted from Crimea and held incommunicado for eight months, during which time he was almost certainly mercilessly tortured into ‘confessing’ to spying charges. The situation was probably similar for Viktor Shur and Ihor Kiyashko.
Russia is holding around 70 Ukrainian political prisoners and 24 POWs in occupied Crimea or Russia. Moscow also determines whether civilian hostages and POWs in occupied Donbas are released. It was clear during the last exchange of prisoners on 27 December 2017 that the Donbas militants, almost certainly at Russia’s instructions, decided to keep holding those prisoners seen as having a higher ‘price’.
It is likely that Crimean Tatar Mejlis leaders Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov were exchanged, in a three-way agreement, for two suspected Russian state-sponsored killers captured in Turkey. Earlier Nadiya Savchenko had been exchanged for two Russian military intelligence officers captured attacking a Ukrainian military unit in May 2015. Russia had consistently, though implausibly, denied that the men were GRU officers, yet proved willing to hand over Savchenko to get them back. It has shown no interest at all in getting Russian mercenaries back even though it claims these are all ‘volunteers’ who went to Donbas to ‘defend’ Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
As mentioned, Whelan’s case seems most similar to that of Roman Sushchenko who was sentenced to 12 years’ maximum security prison in June 2018. The Ukrainian journalist, who had been working as the Ukrinform News Agency’s Paris correspondent for the past 6 years, was seized in Moscow on 30 September, 2016, while visiting relatives in Moscow. Three days later, the FSB admitted that Sushchenko was in their custody. It was claimed that he was a colonel in Ukraine’s Military Intelligence who had been gathering secret information about the activities of the Russian army and forces of the National Guard which could have purportedly damaged Russia’s defence capacity if leaked abroad.
Sushchenko’s profession and role as foreign correspondent guaranteed greater publicity with this preventing any obstruction to his receiving proper legal defence. His lawyer, Mark Feygin, was, however, forced to sign an undertaking not to divulge any information about the case. He did manage to indicate that Sushchenko had likely been set up by a person whom he had known for 28 years. The latter, it seems, had asked him to take a disk back to Paris for another journalist. It was, of course, this disk that the FSB ‘found’ when they burst in on him.
Feygin has also suggested that the information he was accused of gathering was about an anticipated invasion of Ukraine by Russia in the summer or autumn of 2016.
It has long been dangerous for Ukrainians to travel to Russia. After Whelan’s arrest, people from other countries might well consider whether a trip to Moscow or St Petersburg is really worth the risk of an unscheduled stay in the appaling conditions of a Russian prison.