News Brief

US Marine’s Arrest in Moscow Prompts Battle Over Russia’s Tourism Image

Is it safe to travel as a tourist to Russia?

“I used to say yes, with enthusiasm,” tweeted the former US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul in response to Russia’s arrest of ex-US Marine Paul Whelan on espionage charges. But in the wake of Whelan’s arrest, McFaul now says his answer is no.

Long a hate figure for the Kremlin, former ambassador McFaul’s comments touched a nerve in parts of the Russian media — with foreigners working for state-funded RT (formerly Russia Today) joining in on Moscow’s side. In an op-ed for its website, Irish writer Danielle Ryan called McFaul’s comments “total nonsense.”

“A former official who should really know better is perpetuating the myth of deep, dark, dangerous Russia,” she wrote. She admitted some doubt though about how the Russians might treat her if she was American. “I can’t say with absolute certainty that I would have not have been hauled off to some secret Siberian gulag,” but concluded, “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I would have been fine.”

Seeking to bolster her case, Ryan highlighted a series of tweets from a British newspaper columnist cataloguing her New Year railway trip across Russia, commenting that: “Believe it or not, a wonderful time was had and nobody seems to have gotten arrested.”

According to anonymous Russian security sources cited by news service Rosbalt, Whelan was “detained red handed” after receiving a memory stick containing state secrets and a list of people of “keen interest to US intelligence.”

But that has been met with widespread skepticism, not least because Whelan’s record makes him an unlikely choice for a clandestine American spy mission in Russia. His brother told Foreign Policy that he barely speaks any Russian, and it’s emerged that he was discharged from the US Marines for bad conduct.

It’s possible the American — who holds passports of three other nations — has been detained so he can be used in exchange for Russians in US custody, including Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty in December of trying to influence American politics.

But there has also been speculation that Whelan may be the victim of an internal battle between Russia’s competing security services.

As far as Russia is concerned, the US appears to be escalating tensions. On January 5, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the FBI had detained Russian citizen Dmitry Makarenko on the island of Saipan, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean. In a statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called the arrest a “hunt against our citizens.”

Any Russian who thought they could be of interest to the American authorities should think twice before traveling abroad Ryabkov said, because: “There is no safe place.”