In recent days, Russia has arrested the American spy Paul Whelan.
This is widely viewed as retribution for the prosecution of Maria Butina. Perhaps the kremlins were finally cajoled into action by China’s example.
(Main theory making the rounds in Russiagate circles is that it is a ploy to arrange an exchange with Butina back before she spills the beans to Mueller).
Still, things might not be that straightforward.
If Whelan isn’t a spy but a “hostage” – and there are doubts on that score, because who exactly physically travels to take delivery of a flash drive in The Current Year? – then it turns out that the Chekists arrested one of the few American Russophiles (as is clear from his social media profile). In which case, no comment.
Alternatively, he purposefully participated in this show for money. His Vkontakte profile had many Russian silovik friends. In that case, the obviousness of that ruse – combined with Americans having little sympathy for a convicted fraudster and walking stereotype of Trump/Russia supporters – means the chances of any exchange for Butina (who has not even been charged with spying) are zero.
He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who is an actual spy. With his multiple citizenships, colorful history, and open relations with elements of the Russian security services, he might as well walk with a sign emblazoned on his back.
A powerful move would have been to arrest someone in an analogous position to Butina – that is, some American ideological drone harping on about the superiority of Western values, trying to establish contacts with Russian politicians, etc. In other words, almost any American journalist, 90% of whom are Russophobes, would have done. But it seems this is a step too far for the kremlins.