Russia’s foreign ministry has not ruled out a prisoner exchange for the British citizen held on apparent charges of espionage.
Paul Whelan, a former US marine, was arrested in Moscow on December 28th. Russian media reported claims that the 48-year-old was apprehended in possession of a USB drive containing the names of Russian security agents.
Since his arrest Mr Whelan, who also holds US, Canadian and Irish passports, has been kept in the notoriously brutal Lefortovo prison in the Russian capital.
On Saturday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that it was too early to talk of a prisoner swap.
“As to the possibility of prisoner exchanges, it’s incorrect to consider the question when formal charges have not even been brought,” Sergei Ryabkov told state-run RIA-Novosti news agency.
The United States is also currently holding Maria Butina, a Russian citizen who pled guilty to espionage last month and co-operated with prosecutors over her attempts to infiltrate right-wing groups, including the National Rifle Association.
The foreign ministry comments follow revelations about Mr Whelan’s past.
In 2008, he was court-martialed and dishonourably discharged from the Marines on charges of larceny and passing bad checks. According to the Washington Post, he attempted to steal $10,000 while deployed to Iraq in 2006.
Mr Whelan, a Russophile who often visited the country, possessed an account on Vtonktate, the Russian version of Facebook. Many of his contacts appear to be involved in the Russian navy or Defence Ministry, the New York Times reported.
However, CIA officials told the paper that Mr Whelan’s court-martial meant it was unlikely he would have later been employed as a secret agent, adding that most spies possess diplomatic passports so they cannot be detained for long.
On his Vtonktate page, Mr Whelan posted “GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” after the President’s 2017 inauguration, alongside updates about the family cat.
One of his VK friend’s, Oleg, told Russian media that he had loaned Mr Whelan $1,000 to buy a paintball gun and not been repaid. “I am sorry that I can’t send you I have already surpassed the limit that I can send abroad within a year,” Mr Whelan allegedly told him.
The former serviceman’s twin brother, David, told reporters that he feared his sibling could be detained for several years, caught up in the worsening tensions between Washington and Moscow.
He said there was nothing to indicate his brother was a spy and the arrest was “very arbitrary”.
"Our family is tending to focus on getting him out anything we can do to make his stay as least-awful as possible and not worry so much about the rationale for what caused it," David said.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is investigating Mr Whelan on charges of espionage that carry a sentence of up to 20 years, state-run media reported.