Moscow may have arrested a British citizen to set up a ‘spy swap’ for a Russian being held in the United States.
Former US Marine Paul Whelan is in custody in the Russian capital after being detained last week on suspicion of espionage charges.
The 48-year-old, from Novi, Michigan, was there to help plan the wedding of another former Marine because he had been to Russia several times, according to his brother.
Mr Whelan – who has British citizenship through his parents, was allegedly found with a USB memory stick with a secret list of Russian agents.
He was accosted at the Metropol hotel, a historic art nouveau building two miles from the Kremlin.
There has been speculation Mr Whelan may be used as part of a ‘swap’ with accused Russian spy Maria Butina who is currently being held in the United States.
Last month, Butina admitted to US prosecutors that she had tried to infiltrate American conservative groups as an agent for Moscow.
David Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely,” that Russia had detained Whelan to set up an exchange for Butina.
Commenting on a possible swap, Dmitry Novikov, a first deputy head of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said Russian intelligence first needed to finish their investigations.
“Then we’ll see,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Whelan’s British citizenship introduces a new political dimension.
Relations between London and Moscow have been toxic since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March last year.
Britain alleges Skripal was poisoned by Russian intelligence agents posing as tourists, while Russia denies any involvement.
Yesterday, Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Russia not to use Brits as pawns in “diplomatic chess games”.
He said Mr Whelan was being given “every support” after it emerged he has dual British nationality.
In Singapore, Mr Hunt said: “Individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage.”
He added: “We are giving him every support that we can, but we don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games.
“Because it is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families and we are extremely worried about him and his family.”
The US embassy in Moscow advised the British embassy in Moscow on Thursday that a US citizen detained by the Russian authorities on December 28 informed them that he holds British citizenship.
Mr Whelan’s lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said he had appealed to the court against the detention and requested he be released on bail.
He said: “I have sent an appeal against Whelan’s detention. In my appeal I am asking to change my client’s measure of restraint from arrest to release on bail to the sum determined by the court.”
Mr Zherebenkov said Mr Whelan, who faces a jail term of up to 20 years if convicted, remained in good spirits when he spoke to him on Wednesday this week.