WASHINGTON — He loved to travel around Russia by train, collected tea glass holders stamped with Russian historical scenes and maintained social media friendships with ordinary Russians, from a hairstylist to retired members of the country’s military.
Now Paul N. Whelan, a former United States Marine and current security chief for BorgWarner, an international auto parts manufacturer, has been accused of espionage by Russia and is in solitary confinement in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison — long used by the K.G.B. and its successors for Soviet dissidents and foreign spies. The United States government refused to publicly discuss Mr. Whelan’s status in detail, but former C.I.A. officers said they did not think he was a spy.
Whatever the truth, Mr. Whelan, 48, has become the latest pawn between Russia and the United States as rising tensions take on the cast of the Cold War years, when espionage charges and spy swaps were common. Mr. Whelan’s arrest comes after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, admitted to being involved in an organized effort, backed by Russian officials, to lobby influential Americans in the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party and pleaded guilty on Dec. 13 in Federal District Court in Washington to conspiring to act as a foreign agent.
On Thursday, Russian authorities formally charged Mr. Whelan, who could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, his lawyer, Vladimir A. Zherebenkov, said in an interview. Current and former officials said it was possible Mr. Whelan was seized to exchange him for Ms. Butina.
There is little doubt that Mr. Whelan — who joked about giving Alaska back to Russia as long as they took in a former governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin — was an unusual person with out-of-the ordinary travel and associations. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Whelan was deployed twice to Iraq before he was court-martialed by the Marine Corps in 2008 on charges of larceny and passing bad checks.
He had visited Russia since at least 2006 — the trip that year was part of a special military furlough program — and was familiar to numerous Russians who had known him or interacted with him on social media. They said he seemed to pop up every six months or so. Unusual for an occasional visitor, Mr. Whelan had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, for about a decade.
He did not post often, but wrote congratulatory notes in Russian on various major holidays and occasionally voiced his opinions about American politics. “GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” Mr. Whelan wrote on the day of Mr. Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, bracketing the sentence with two American flag emojis. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he posted a Russian cartoon suggesting that Alaska might be next, as it was once a Russian territory. “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!!” Mr. Whelan wrote.
Last August, he wrote that his cat, Mittens, a pet for 16 years, had passed away. “Farewell to a loyal friend of many years,” Mr. Whelan posted.
A quick survey of Mr. Whelan’s Russian social media contacts, about 70 in all, indicated that most seemed to be men with some sort of connection to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry or the Civil Aviation Authority. Most of those he reached out to said that Mr. Whelan seemed like a friendly, open American interested in learning the Russian language and culture and traveling around the country. Although he studied Russian, some of his social media contacts said he communicated through Google Translate.
One Russian whom Mr. Whelan started following on Instagram six years ago was Sergei Artyomenko, 26, a Moscow hair stylist who was then serving in the military. The two men never met in person, although they had a running joke about his getting a haircut, Mr. Artyomenko said. “I am not sure how he found me, but he would initiate small talk every six months or so,” Mr. Artyomenko said, adding that they had mostly discussed interesting places to travel.
Mr. Whelan’s family said that he was in Russia on his most recent trip, in December, to attend the wedding of a friend from the Marine Corps who was marrying a Russian woman at the storied Metropol Hotel in Moscow. That is where Russian authorities apprehended Mr. Whelan last Friday during a meeting with a Russian citizen in his hotel room.
Rosbalt, a Russian news agency close to the security services, quoted an unidentified intelligence source on Wednesday who said that Mr. Whelan was accused of trying to recruit the Russian to obtain classified information about staff members at various Russian agencies.
Mr. Whelan was arrested five minutes after receiving a U.S.B. stick containing a list of all of the employees at a classified security agency, Rosbalt said.
Despite the accusations, C.I.A. officers expressed skepticism that Mr. Whelan was a spy.
First, they said, the court-martial was the kind of black mark on his record that would most likely have prevented him from being hired by the C.I.A., or would at least complicate his tenure there. Most C.I.A. officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats, and if caught by a hostile government in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.
Former C.I.A. officials who have operated in Moscow said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protections. The United States, said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer who served in Moscow and ran the agency’s Russia operations, would “never leave a real intelligence officer vulnerable to arrest.”
Dan Hoffman, a former C.I.A. officer who served as the agency’s station chief in Moscow, also said that Russia has a long track record of planting false evidence, particularly in espionage cases.
“They are really good at fabricating what they would like to appear to be evidence, even when it is not,” Mr. Hoffman said. “They will fabricate whatever they need to make the story look like they want.”
Mr. Zherebenkov, Mr. Whelan’s lawyer, said his client had been ordered held for two months, a standard procedure, but the government had not shown him evidence of espionage.
“I presume that he is innocent because, for now, I haven’t seen any evidence against him that would prove otherwise,” said Mr. Zherebenkov, who said that Mr. Whelan would petition the court for bail.
Mr. Whelan, former C.I.A. officials noted, did reach out to people associated with the Russian military, but the officials said it was possible he was seeking people with a background similar to his. They noted that his military contacts appeared to be low-level service members. Mr. Whelan had enlisted in the Marines and had achieved the rank of staff sergeant before being demoted to private after his court-martial.
The officials said they saw flaws in the theory that Mr. Whelan was arrested in hopes of swapping him for Ms. Butina. Under Ms. Butina’s cooperation agreement, she is likely to be released in the coming months and deported to Russia — making a swap with Mr. Whelan unnecessary.
The American ambassador to Russia, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., visited Mr. Whelan in prison on Wednesday, the State Department said, but provided no further details.
Mr. Zherebenkov, a high-profile criminal defense lawyer, said he had spent much of Wednesday with Mr. Whelan and found his client in an upbeat mood despite the long legal road that he faces. “I was surprised to see him being so confident,” he said.