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Russia says too early to consider swap after mutual arrests

Then-Staff Sgt. Paul N. Whelan, adjutant, Marine Air Control Group 38 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), pictured before the Kremlin in 2007. (Cpl. James B. Hoke/U.S. Marine Corps)
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This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia says it is too early to discuss a swap of individuals with United States after the two countries detained citizens of the other in alleged espionage-related cases.

Moscow on January 5 said the United States detained Russian citizen Dmitry Makarenko in the U.S. Pacific territory of the Northern Mariana Islands on December 29 and that he has been transferred to the U.S. mainland to face conspiracy charges.

That date would have put it one day after Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested former U.S. marine Paul Whelan in Moscow on spying charges.

It remains unclear when respective government officials learned of the arrests of their citizens by the other country.

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The United States is also holding a Russian citizen, Maria Butina, in a high-profile case. Butina has pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin and has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, leading to speculation of a possible swap.

In the past, Russia has sometimes arrested foreigners with the aim of trading prisoners with other countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, however, said on January 5 that discussing a swap involving Whelan would be premature because Whelan hasn’t been formally charged.

“As to the possibility of exchanges of one sort or another, it’s impossible and incorrect to consider the question now when an official charge hasn’t even been presented,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying by the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency.

“Charges will be presented in the near future,” he said, according to Interfax.

Washington and Moscow are also holding other individuals who have been charged or convicted in criminal or espionage matters related to the other country.

In a statement quoted by Russian media on January 5, the Foreign Ministry said the United States detained Makarenko in the Northern Mariana Islands on December 29 and moved him to Florida.

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The ministry did not reveal the accusations against him but said U.S. authorities had failed to inform them of his arrest and they had only found out from his family.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has yet to provide comment. The State Department and the FBI also have not commented.

Papers filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida show Makarenko was accused in June 2017 by federal prosecutors of conspiring with another man, Vladimir Nevidomy, to export defense articles including night-vision scopes from the United States to Russia without U.S. approval.

Makarenko, who was listed as a resident of Vladivostok, was declared a fugitive from U.S. justice in January 2018. Nevidomy, a resident of Hallandale Beach, Florida, pleaded guilty in June 2018 and was sentenced to 26 months in prison, the court papers showed.

Whelan was arrested by the FSB on December 28. His family have said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

Relations between Russia and the United States are already strained over issues ranging from Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, to the poisoning of a double agent in Britain.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week Washington had asked Moscow to explain Whelan’s arrest and would demand his immediate return if it determined his detention is inappropriate.

Whelan also holds Canadian, British, and Irish citizenship.

Britain cautioned Russia on January 4 that individuals should not be used as diplomatic pawns.

Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to acting as an agent for the Kremlin.

Moscow has denied that Butina is a Russian agent and has organized a social-media campaign to secure her release.

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