The Puzzling Story of Accused Russian Spy Paul Whelan

Former US Marine Paul Whelan says he feels "abandoned" and betrayed by the US; he is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage - charges he denies.

With his tidy blue sweater and mild-mannered court protests, Paul Whelan seems more like a school teacher than a dangerous international spy - yet that is exactly what Moscow accuses him of being.

The curious case of Michigan’s improbable ‘spy’ began in 2018 when Russian agents charged into his hotel room at Moscow’s Metropol and pinned the former US Marine to the floor as Whelan was getting ready for a friend’s wedding.

Paul Whelan's next 18 months were spent in prison before his conviction in June 2000. The espionage trial was held almost entirely behind closed doors based on what the US ambassador to Moscow describes as ‘secret’ evidence. Whelan held up protest notes in his glass cage during proceedings and complained to journalists as he was marched in and out: “This is simply a dog and pony show for the media. They’re not doing anything at all.”

"Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission," he said in court one day. "In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday."

Accused Russian 'Spy' Paul Whelan in court hall followed by the media
Paul Whelan has described himself as a Russian 'hostage'


Paul Whelan in Brief

Despite months of speculation, former US Marine Paul Whelan did not figure in a prisoner exchange (sometimes referred to as a 'spy swap') that involved US basketball star Brittney Griner in December 2022. Here are some fast facts about Whelan to get you up to speed:

• Whelan was arrested by Russian spies working for the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic security spies who also arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in a room at Moscow's Metropol Hotel, near the Kremlin, on Dec. 28, 2018.

• Whelan, who served with the Marine Corps Reserve from 2003-2008, is accused of being a spy for military intelligence and is serving a 16 year sentence.

• Whelan said he had been in Russia for a friend's wedding and had been given a hard drive in a sting by a Russian friend.

• He was born in Ottawa, Canada and later moved to Novi, Michigan.

• At the time of his arrest, Whelan was head of global security for Michigan car parts supplier BorgWarner, which does not have facilities in Russia.

The Puzzling Story of Accused Russian 'Spy' Paul Whelan

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Former US Marine Paul Whelan says he feels "abandoned" and betrayed by the US; he is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage - charges he denies.

With his tidy blue sweater and mild-mannered court protests, Paul Whelan seems more like a school teacher than a dangerous international spy - yet that is exactly what Moscow accuses him of being.

The curious case of Michigan’s improbable ‘spy’ began in 2018 when Russian agents charged into his hotel room at Moscow’s Metropol and pinned the former US Marine to the floor as Whelan was getting ready for a friend’s wedding.

Paul Whelan's next 18 months were spent in prison before his conviction in June 2000. The espionage trial was held almost entirely behind closed doors based on what the US ambassador to Moscow describes as ‘secret’ evidence. Whelan held up protest notes in his glass cage during proceedings and complained to journalists as he was marched in and out: “This is simply a dog and pony show for the media. They’re not doing anything at all.”

"Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission," he said in court one day. "In reality, they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday."

Accused Russian 'Spy' Paul Whelan in court hall followed by the media
Paul Whelan has described himself as a Russian 'hostage'
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Paul Whelan: A man of many passports

Paul Whelan in his military uniform next to the US Flag

Paul Whelan's twin brother, David, dismissed speculation that Paul Whelan is a US government spy. According to court-martial records, Paul Whelan actually received a bad-conduct discharge from the US Marines in 2008 and his rank was reduced to that of corporal when he was found guilty of bouncing checks and the attempted theft of $10,000 during a tour in Iraq.

David Whelan told SPYSCAPE that the imprisonment has been difficult on his brother and the entire family. In addition to their worries about Paul Whelan, strangers have been peering over their 80-year-old parents’ fence taking photos and YouTube conspiracy theory videos pop up wrongly tying Paul Whelan to assassination squads and secret flights: “I wouldn't wish this on anyone, or their family,” David Whelan said.

Paul Whelan - who was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1970 and later moved to the US - also has Irish and British citizenship through his parents and grandparents, which has ramped up international interest in his case. US-Russian relations remained at a post-Cold War low, however, and so far the diplomatic pressure from North America and Europe hasn’t worked. The US State Department has designated Whelan “wrongfully detained,” meaning he is effectively considered a political hostage.

Whelan began visiting Russia while stationed in Iraq and returned frequently to tour the country. Paul Whelan even had a Russian social media account VK, Russia’s equivalent to Facebook.

In 2018, he was working in Novi, Michigan as director of global security for an automotive parts supplier but said he returned to Moscow to help a friend with his wedding to a Russian woman. There are varying reports as to what happened on that fateful day on December 28, 2018, and many outstanding questions about the flash drive, Paul Whelan’s Russian friends, and whether he will be allowed to serve his time in the US.

Paul Whelan's arrest

Whelan told reporters that the espionage charge involved accusations that he was working for the US Defense Intelligence Agency when he obtained a flash drive from a friend containing the names of Russian border guards. In his defense, he said he thought the flash drive contained holiday photos and he hadn’t yet looked at it when he was ambushed by Moscow security services in his hotel room.

In any event, Whelan told reporters it would be 'illogical' for him to carry out a mission involving a memory stick in the digital age.

Moscow has been hinting about a possible prisoner swap since shortly after Paul Whelan’s conviction, the BBC reported, leading to speculation that the former Marine was a political pawn in line for a potential ‘spy swap’. 

In an interview with the BBC in December 2023, Whelan said he felt left behind by the US government: “They’ve basically abandoned me here,” he told the BBC by phone. “I’m extremely concerned. “With each case, my case is going to the back of the line. They’ve kind of just left me in the dust. And at this point, this juncture, it’s very concerning.”

He told the BBC that his days are occupied stitching work overalls and hats in a prison factory.

Paul Whelan in Russia with his parents
Paul Whelan with his parents in Moscow


Paul Whelan's grim reality

US Ambassador John Sullivan visited Whelan in prison in September 2021 and said he'd speak out on his behalf until Paul Whelan is released. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, maintains the American was caught 'red-handed'.

Whelan has spent his days in a high-security prison, a former WWII gulag about 300 miles from Moscow. He described it as ‘pretty grim’. He shares the space with 50 to 60 other men and was confined throughout the Covid crisis.

His unheated barracks have black mould on the walls.

Paul Whelan in prison
In August 2023, Russian state media released video showing Whelan in a prison camp

Paul Whelan: A US Prisoner Left Behind?

In August 2023, Russia's state media released video of Whelen in a prison but it is unclear when the footage was shot. Whelen is shown wearing a black uniform and hat, walking among other inmates. In another section of the video, Whelen is shown sewing clothes. Whelen spoke only to deny a request to answer questions or agree to an interview. The prison appeared to be within IK-17, a maximum-security penal colony in Mordovia, a remote region of Russia.


Paul Whelan in Brief

Despite months of speculation, former US Marine Paul Whelan did not figure in a prisoner exchange (sometimes referred to as a 'spy swap') that involved US basketball star Brittney Griner in December 2022. Here are some fast facts about Whelan to get you up to speed:

• Whelan was arrested by Russian spies working for the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic security spies who also arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, in a room at Moscow's Metropol Hotel, near the Kremlin, on Dec. 28, 2018.

• Whelan, who served with the Marine Corps Reserve from 2003-2008, is accused of being a spy for military intelligence and is serving a 16 year sentence.

• Whelan said he had been in Russia for a friend's wedding and had been given a hard drive in a sting by a Russian friend.

• He was born in Ottawa, Canada and later moved to Novi, Michigan.

• At the time of his arrest, Whelan was head of global security for Michigan car parts supplier BorgWarner, which does not have facilities in Russia.

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