This piece was originally published in Euromaidan Press
American Paul Whelan was arrested on 28 December in Moscow and accused of espionage. What stands out in his case is not that he is extremely unlikely to be a spy – Moscow’s hostage-taking is well known. Whelan can be viewed as what the Russian intelligence calls a “useful idiot” – a foreign Russia-lover intoxicated by its charms. His case proves that Russia will not hesitate to dispose of such a foreign fan if the moment is right – no matter their love.
For at least the past five years, Russia is steadfastly ratcheting up conflicts with Europe and the United States, exacerbating tensions every year. Nevertheless, in western countries, many people are still fond of everything connected with Moscow. This kind of Russophile openly admires not only Russian culture, but also the army, sports, history, and, more often, the Russian leader personally. Some of them start learning Russian, many often travel to Russia as tourists, and back in their home countries they watch RT and call for “understanding Putin.”
In Russian intelligence itself, it is common to call such people “useful idiots.” Their loyalty is beneficial for Moscow, they serve as an excellent advertisement, and often, if they occupy an important position or are well-known in their own countries, they can become full-fledged Russian agents of influence. At the same time, the Kremlin does not need to formally recruit such enthusiasts – just to exploit their sincere fondness for Russia and encourage them with the standard set of “courtship” tricks, with which Moscow has long been able to lure tourists.
Indeed, it is an irrefutable fact that the ability of Russian intelligence to work with people is no worse, and sometimes even better than that of its Western colleagues.
In addition to generous pay for the services of foreign lobbyists, the Kremlin does not skimp on the many “status” symbols that have an even bigger psychological effect on foreign guests than money. “Sympathetic” foreigners are invited to the forums and conferences of the highest level, receptions and meetings are organized for them with a rich cultural program and, of course, their activities receive full support.
Money, cultural events, thank-you ceremonies, good business deals and investments, TV interviews, etc. – all these signs of attention are designed to emphasize that in the “new homeland” a person is welcomed and respected as he/she has never been in their home country. Of course, many of those who already have a positive attitude toward Russia cannot resist such a “bombardment with love” and begin to work selflessly for Moscow, without even realizing that such work borders on the betrayal of their own country.
However, despite all the brilliance and beauty of “Russian recruitment,” foreigners would do well to remember several important patterns that take place in interaction with Moscow.
Loyalty to the Russian authorities will not save you from their despotism
We will cite only a few of the most recent examples. On 28 December 2018, an American (and a Canadian, Irish, and British), Paul Whelan, was detained in Moscow. According to the Russian officials, he was caught during an “espionage operation,” in connection with which the FSB opened a criminal case against the American under the article “Spying,” which calls for up to 20 years in prison. According to Rosbalt Russian news agency, which refers to its sources in the special services, Whelan was detained red-handed after receiving a flash card with the classified list of officers of one of the secret agencies.
At the same time, his brother David Whelan told the press that Paul was in Moscow for the wedding of a fellow Marine. As The Washington Post discovered, Whelan joined Marine Reserves in 1994. In 2004 and 2006, he was deployed in the war in Iraq for several months, and in 2008 he was convicted at a special court-martial on several charges related to larceny and was given a bad-conduct discharge in December 2008 with the rank of private.
As it turns out, the arrested American had an account in the Russian social network VKontakte, allegedly under the control of the FSB. In his posts (if they really belonged to him), Whelan praised Donald Trump, as well as… the Russian army! He published congratulations on Victory Day and Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russian, putting the image of the Russian flag in his posts, and one of the Russian-language videos on his page is devoted to Defender of the Fatherland Day and is called “Army is the mirror of the state.” The video talks about Vladimir Putin reviving the Russian army.
Based on Whelan’s biography and other known facts, veterans of both American and Soviet intelligence agencies are certain that the American detained in Moscow has nothing to do with the special services. John Sipher, a former senior CIA official with nearly 30 years of experience in intelligence, as well as his colleague, another former CIA officer, Michael Sellers, agree that the CIA would never hire a man who was dismissed from the army for criminal behavior. In addition, veterans say that the intelligence will never take the risk of entrusting dangerous tasks to a person without diplomatic immunity.
Of course, no intelligence service in the world would recognize a failed spy as its officer, but in this particular case, former intelligence officers seem to be telling the truth. Whelan, with his biography and four citizenships, simply could not be an intelligence officer.
The version that Whelan could be an agent or a confidant of the CIA, and his pro-Russian sentiment was only a “cover” for his intelligence activities, also does not hold water.
Infiltration based on seemingly common interests or sympathies is possible within a state – for example, KGB agents infiltrated into dissident groups during the Soviet era. However, in the field of international espionage, this approach does not work. If Whelan planned to receive documents containing a state secret (according to the FSB charges), he would not have any reason to make connections among Russian ultra-patriots. On the contrary, he would need to look for completely different type of people – those who are ready to betray their country. The Russophile image in this case only interfered with its task.
In fact, if you are a Russian who is planning to betray state secrets to the United States, whom would you choose as a recipient of this information: a person who has an apparent connection to the US government and does not seem sympathetic to the country you are about to betray, or a private person – an eager Russophile with dubious reputation? Would you believe this Russophile, even if he tells you that his love for Russia is fake, or would you prefer not to risk your life and freedom with such a bizarre individual?
The friendly relations with an American, built on the pro-Russian sympathies of the latter, may rather become the basis for the Russian special services to try to recruit him, but certainly not to give him a flash card with secret information.
No matter how much Whelan expresses his love for Russia, Russian “ultra-patriots” regard him first of all as an American – a citizen of a hostile state. They can be friendly with him and even drink together, but nobody would risk giving up state secrets on the basis of a common love for Russia.
Of course, friendly relations make it possible that someone among Whelan’s Russian acquaintances unwittingly reveals state secrets if there are people with such secrets among them. Russian special services officers and other “people with clearance” often do not worry too much about the safety of state secrets. Here is an example: Svetlana Davydova, the mother of seven children, was charged with treason just because she shared with her friend information about Russia’s invasion of Georgia, that she had overheard in a phone conversation on the city bus (later she was acquitted.) However, Whelan was arrested not because he traveled on public transportation without earplugs – he was charged with purposefully receiving secret information in a hotel room, that is, something that a spy without diplomatic immunity would never engage in.
In May 2013, when Ryan Fogle, a real American spy, was arrested in Moscow, numerous evidence of his activities was demonstrated on all the Russian central channels: photographs of his arrest red-handed, wigs and a compass, money and even audio recordings of his conversations.
In the case of Whelan, on the contrary, we did not see anything like this. Based on all of the above, the probability is very high that the detained American was never a spy, his Russophilism was genuine, and his arrest can be viewed as a kind of “hostage-taking,” that is, a provocation aimed at future swaps for Russians arrested in the US, first of all – Maria Butina.
As we can see, neither the congratulations published by him on Victory Day in pure Russian nor the videos glorifying Russian military power saved him from this provocation and detention in the notorious Lefortovo pretrial prison.
Almost two years ago, Moscow persecuted another of its faithful admirers – however, unlike Whelan, he got away, let’s say, with a slight fright. We are talking about Louis Marinelli, an American whom Russian propagandists labeled as a CIA agent. While living in the United States, Marinelli led the movement for secession of California from the United States, as he himself stated, “according to the Crimean scenario.” He attended the well-known “separatist” forum in Moscow, “Dialogue of Nations – The right of people to self-determination and the construction of a multi-polar world,” and personally emphasized his loyalty to Russia. Back in 2016, Marinelli admitted that he had been living for some time in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg and considered Russia to be his “second home” and “could no longer live under the American flag.”
However, as soon as the American moved to a permanent place of residence in this city in the Urals, one of Russia’s central channels Russia-24 broadcast a report “investigating” Marinelli’s alleged involvement in US intelligence services. The basis for the suspicion on the part of the authors of the video, who were pure propagandists, was the choice of the city of residence and the area in this city, the unattractive, miserable landscapes of which inevitably come into view whenever the American “patriot of Russia” has the misfortune of being interviewed.
The propaganda campaign against Marinelli can be explained both by the traditional Russian paranoia and (which is more likely in this case) by the desire to publicly refute the rumors about the ties of the American separatist with the Kremlin. Anyway, the situation when a person is initially invited to a prestigious Kremlin forum, and after six months of his residence in Russia is publicly disgraced, is quite ordinary for Russia – in recent years Moscow has been ready to pay a high price for purely propaganda purposes.
If you work for Russia, breaking your country’s law, you will be caught sooner or later.
With more and more facts being discovered of Russia’s blatant interference with western states’ elections and internal policies, attention to these countries’ citizens with Russia ties increased sharply. Sadly, this is true not just for spies – look at the special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russian intervention into the presidential campaign of 2016. Even an adviser to the president on national security and the head of his election campaign did not escape from justice. Paul Manafort, for example, is being held accountable for concealing income obtained from lobbying activities, and during the investigation of this crime, it turned out that he also gave false testimony to the investigation and coordinated his activities with a partner connected to Russian intelligence.
The connections of Marine Le Pen and other representatives of the European extreme right to the Kremlin are revealed, the names of some lobbyists are increasingly appearing in the media, and law enforcement takes interest in them after journalists’ findings. If you are just a low-level participant, this also does not mean that you will get away with your work if you are breaking the law.
In 2018, three Polish nationalists with pro-Russian views were arrested in Poland on charges of setting fire to a Hungarian cultural center in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. Two of them were members of the Falanga neo-fascist movement, and the third, the organizer, was also a member of the ultra-right Smiana party, whose leader, Mateusz Piskorski, is now also under arrest after being accused of spying for Russia and China. And there are a lot of such examples.
And finally, if Russian special services decide that you know too much, or if you suddenly cease to be loyal to the “new homeland,” you can be killed. An analysis of the circumstances of strange deaths that have taken place in recent years shows that the deaths of not only oppositionists and journalists but also defectors, informants, potential informants, etc., are in one way or another connected with Russia. GRU leaders, diplomats, employees of anti-doping agencies, loyal but too fanatical Donbas militants and other people are dying under suspicious circumstances. So far, such deaths occur mostly to Russians, but who said that they will not happen to foreigners either?
Russian authorities have perfectly mastered the special art which not all residents of Western countries possess – in the first stage they treat their new friends as “one of their own” and help them to feel comfortable and delightful. The totalitarian nature of the state and the omnipotence of the special services make this task easier, allowing Russian recruiters to help their agents in a variety of situations. However, it is important to remember that the price for such treatment in most cases is very high.