Trading places: Did Russia seek a bargaining chip for Maria Butina?

Russia’s detention of Paul Whelan on charges of espionage is a sharp reminder that U.S. citizens traveling abroad remain at the mercy of local perceptions and political agendas. Whether their travel is to Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Latin America, their actions, no matter how benign they might seem, can attract unwanted and misconstrued judgment by local law enforcement and security services. Furthermore, with the breakdown of accepted geopolitical spheres of influence, the rules that guided international engagements in the past on major incidents no longer apply.

Although Americans are responsible for their actions abroad, these actions still are open to interpretation by foreign governments, local power brokers or criminal gangs — sometimes all three. Whelan’s detention may be a function of Russia’s bid to obtain the release of their self-admitted influence agent, Maria Butina. However, his background and repeated travel to Russia already had invited the kind of scrutiny that provided Russian intelligence an opportunity to set him up for serious exploitation and manipulation.


Given the prolonged targeting effort against Whelan, there probably is a more strategic Russian motivation at play — American concessions on a number of important geostrategic fronts. It is well known that the release of Americans detained abroad has been a battle cry for President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham: 'I could not disagree more' with Trump support of Afghanistan troop withdrawal GOP believes Democrats handing them winning 2022 campaign Former GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns MORE. Whelan’s arrest simply provides Russia more leverage in the bigger geopolitical negotiation.

Arrests of other Americans — in Iran, North Korea, China, Cuba, Turkey, Russia, the Congo, Egypt and Venezuela — clearly demonstrate that no matter how legitimate the justification for travel, governments can and will leverage access to Americans to achieve geopolitical and economic gain. Frequently these countries use minor legal infractions as a basis for these detentions. Having supported U.S. consular services abroad, I am aware of many Americans being jailed for violating minor local laws.

It should not be shocking that our actions in other countries, in public and private, are closely monitored in ways the FBI does not do, or is prevented from undertaking, in the United States. The ability of foreign governments and non-state actors to monitor and exploit Americans overseas should not be underestimated — especially in countries where the underlying political and military relations are under considerable strain. Americans should understand that, while our embassies do an exceptional job in providing assistance to citizens when they are in trouble, the U.S. government’s ability to impact foreign legal systems, in most cases, is extremely limited.

Following this latest arrest of an American in Moscow, if history is any indicator of the future, the impact on U.S.-Russia relations probably will not be significant or enduring. Most likely, a deal will be reached when the next political drama between the two capitals unfolds, enabling Whelan’s release.

But there is one other major factor to consider: President Trump. In the case of Turkey, the president took a high-stakes position, pushing the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson on charges of terrorism and espionage to the forefront of U.S.-Turkish relations. President Trump’s imposition of sanctions and his hardball diplomacy clearly had an impact on the Erdogan government, which eventually released Brunson. No doubt, President Trump’s efforts have gained the release of other Americans held abroad. On the other hand, recent American foreign policy moves likely have worsened the situation for other Americans who remain incarcerated.

In Whelan’s case, the path to freedom is more a function of what President Trump doesn’t do than what he does. Former senior U.S. intelligence officers have publicly speculated that the arrest was directed by President Vladimir Putin, probably a negotiating ploy for Butina. Whelan likely will be detained as leverage for as long as necessary, his release determined through future negotiations between Moscow and Washington over Syria, Ukraine, nuclear arms talks, trade and the international financial/travel sanctions imposed on prominent Russian businessmen and intelligence officers. Whelan’s other passports are not a significant enough factor to change the outcome of his current detention. He traveled to Russia using a U.S. passport, and his military service was in the U.S. Marine Corps. His other citizenship — born in Canada, with family ties in Ireland and Britain — will not significantly impact his circumstance of release. Ultimately, Putin really seeks to engage and influence President Trump.

Putin has correctly assessed President Trump and obviously has read “The Art of The Deal” — he knows what he needs to take, in order to give it in exchange for what he wants. This sounds more like Putin is “doing it, to do it.” Our president must show how artful his form really is.

Don Hepburn served with the U.S. intelligence community for over 25 years and held senior executive positions in both the CIA and FBI as chief of station and as deputy assistant director. He currently is president of Boanerges Solutions LLC.