Paul Whelan has been accused of espionage in Russia. He has U.S. and British citizenship. Photo by Whelan family/EPA-EFE
Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The U.S. citizen charged with espionage and held in a Russian prison holds citizenship in three other nations, putting additional pressure on the Kremlin.
Paul Whelan, 48, is a former Marine from Michigan who was arrested in Moscow after authorities there say he was caught in the act of espionage -- an accusation his family denies, saying he was in the nation to instead attend a friend's wedding.
On Thursday, Whelan, security chief for international auto parts manufacturer BorgWarner, was formally charged with espionage and could face 20 years in prison.
The same day, British newspaper The Guardian reported the U.K. Foreign Office said, "Our staff have requested consular access to a British man detained in Russia after receiving a request for assistance from him." The Wall Street Journal and New York Times later reported that in addition to his British and U.S. citizenship, Whelan holds citizenship in Canada and Ireland.
The revelation that Whelan holds British citizenship means the British government will push for more information on his arrest alongside U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News Friday that Britain doesn't agree with "individuals being used in diplomatic chess games." He said the United States is taking the lead on this case.
Whelan's capture escalates the already tense relationship between the U.S. and its allies and Russia. A Russian national, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty last month in U.S. federal court to charges of espionage through a plea deal.
The Russian government has demanded the release of Butina, who confessed to spying on pro-gun conservative groups for the Kremlin.
"It's the kind of case that gives diplomats nightmares because it puts a human face on the problem," Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague, said of Whelan's arrest. "Paul Whelan could become a poster child for officials in the U.S. and the West pushing for a harder line on Russia."
Whelan's time in the Marine Corps ended in 2008 when he was court-martialed on charges of larceny and passing bad checks.
He had visited Russia several times and had an account on Vknotakte, the Russian version of Facebook, for about a decade.
His posts on the social media platform were sometimes political. On Jan. 20, 2017, he made a post that said "GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!"
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Whelan posted a Russian cartoon joking that Alaska could be next. He posted "Putin can have Alaska, as long he takes [former Alaskan Gov.] Sarah Palin, too!!"