Russia arrests US citizen caught in ‘act of espionage’ 

An American citizen has been detained in Moscow on suspicion of spying, Russia’s FSB state security service announced on New Year’s Eve.

The FSB said the American had been detained on December 28 but it gave no details of the nature of his alleged espionage activities. The Russians said he was facing criminal charges.

Russia’s state news agency, TASS, named him as Paul Whelan, but the American authorities are yet to confirm his identity.

A state department spokesperson said Russia had notified it that a US citizen had been detained and it expected Moscow to provide consular access to see him.

“Russia’s obligations under the Vienna Convention require them to provide consular access,” the spokesperson said.

 “We have requested this access and expect Russian authorities to provide it.”

The offices of the FSB – the successor to the KGB – in central Moscow

Under Russian law, espionage can carry between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Alexander Mikhailov, a retired FSB officer, said the arrest reflected the effectiveness of Russian counterintelligence.

"The service wouldn’t have made this information public unless it had solid evidence," he told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Earlier this month Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in a US court to a conspiracy charge in a deal with prosecutors, and admitted to working with a top Russian official to infiltrate American conservative activist groups and politicians as an agent for Moscow.

She faces six months in prison, most likely followed by deportation.

Maria Butina will likely be deported for spying

The Russian government, while strenuously denying that Butina is a Russian agent, has organised a social media campaign to attempt to win her release.

And Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, used his annual press conference, on December 20, to warn of potential repercussions from her arrest.

“The law of retaliation states, ‘An eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,’” he said.

But, he added: “we will not arrest innocent people simply to exchange them for someone else later on.”

Speaking at the FSB collegium in 2017, Mr Putin said that spying activity against Russia is not decreasing.

He said that in 2016, Russian security services stopped the activity of 53 rank and file officials and 386 foreign agents. 

Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20, 2018

Russia’s relations with the United States plummeted when Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and Washington and Western allies have imposed a broad range of sanctions on Russian officials, companies and banks.

In the past, the United States has accused Russia of waging a campaign to harass American officers serving overseas. The Washington Post reported that Russians have slashed diplomats’ tires, entered their homes at night and even followed their children as they travelled to school.

US officials also said that a diplomat was attacked by a Russian guard just outside of the US embassy complex in Moscow.

The US government has sanctioned the FSB over cyber activities, and earlier this year, the treasury department imposed sanctions on a firm controlled by the FSB for conducting cyberattacks against the United States.

Furthermore, the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, has been accused of attempting to influence foreign elections – including the 2016 US election.

The GRU also played a key role in the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, and the Salisbury nerve-agent poisonings.

The FSB, however, does have some longstanding cooperation with US intelligence on issues such as counterterrorism.

Earlier this year, Mike Pompeo, the then-CIA director, is reported to have met with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, along with the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, or SVR.

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