Russia says it’s too early to consider exchange of detained American

A top Russian official said Saturday that it is too early to consider releasing a U.S. citizen detained on the suspicion of spying in exchange for a Russian.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Paul Whelan, who was detained in late December, has not been formally charged yet, The Associated Press reported.

“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,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the state news agency RIA-Novosti.

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“Charges will be presented in the near future,” he said, according to the Interfax agency.

Ryabkov's comments came after an unnamed source told the Russian news agency on Thursday that Whelan had been charged with espionage.

There has been speculation that Whelan was arrested in an act of retaliation after Maria Butina pleaded guilty in American courts to acting as a foreign agent for Russia in the U.S.

Russia has denied knowledge of Butina or her efforts.

Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine and security executive from Michigan, had been traveling to Russia for a wedding, according to members of his family. They have fiercely pushed back on Moscow’s allegations that he was conducting espionage.

“I just can’t see him breaking laws in America, let alone going to a country that might be more difficult to navigate if he broke the law, and certainly not breaking a law of espionage,” Whelan’s brother David Whelan told the Detroit Free Press earlier this week.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Paul Whelan in Moscow on Wednesday, according to the State Department. Huntsman has also been in touch with Whelan's family, officials said.