The U.S. government has demanded the return of Paul Whelan, a retired U.S. marine who was arrested in Moscow on spying charges last week.
According to Russian media, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued the demand on Wednesday in Brazil, where he was attending the inauguration of new president Jair Bolsonaro. Pompeo also called for the Kremlin to explain the arrest.
Whelan, who is these days the director of global security for Michigan auto-parts supplier BorgWarner, was detained Friday. According to his family, he was visiting the Russian capital in order to attend the wedding of a former colleague.
His brother, David Whelan, tweeted a statement from the family on Tuesday. “We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being,” it read. “His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected.”
Bill Browder, the U.S. financier who successfully lobbied American and other lawmakers to introduce sanctions against Russian oligarchs over the death of his auditor, Sergei Magnitsky, also waded into the Whelan affair.
Browder suggested on Twitter that Whelan’s arrest “looks increasingly like a hostage situation,” and said the Trump administration should “intervene decisively in this case.”
The Hermitage Capital Management CEO’s suggestion aligns with a theory about Russia wanting someone to swap for Maria Butina, the Russian spy who last month pleaded guilty to conspiring against the U.S.
Former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman told Reuters that it was “possible, even likely” that Whelan was arrested for this purpose.
The Whelan case is likely to ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and Russia, at a time when the Mueller investigation continues to draw public attention to links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
Until recently, U.S. President Donald Trump has been notoriously friendly toward his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, taking his word over that of American intelligence officials when it came to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
However, in October Trump conceded that Putin was “probably” behind the poisoning of Russian dissidents — an event that led the U.S. to launch new sanctions on Russia — and in November, following Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships and their crew, he abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin.
This article was updated to reflect breaking news about Pompeo’s demand.