WASHINGTON — The American man being held on espionage charges in Moscow also has British, Canadian and Irish citizenship, officials said on Friday, a status that could complicate the situation for Russia if it finds itself confronted by coordinated pressure from the West.
The man, Paul N. Whelan, could benefit from stepped-up efforts by multiple governments to secure his release, especially if the four countries coordinate their actions to secure his release or work to develop a collective punishment, like restricting visas for Russian business leaders.
New details also emerged on Friday about Mr. Whelan’s court-martial and bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps. While deployed to Iraq in 2006, then-Staff Sgt. Whelan was found guilty of attempting to steal $10,410.59 and pass bad checks in an attempt to pay off debt.
Some former American officials said that by detaining a citizen of multiple countries, Russia may have miscalculated by picking not just a fight with the United States, but with a larger part of the international community — inviting the kind of multinational pressure that Moscow is most susceptible to.
Other analysts said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would welcome any developments that make it appear that he is fighting all of the West. He has for years tried to cultivate an image of an embattled Russia to strengthen his own position.
The Russian government arrested Mr. Whelan on Dec. 28, and he was charged with espionage. But on Friday, questions emerged in Russia about press reports that said investigators had found classified information in Mr. Whelan’s possession.
Mr. Whelan has a curious profile, not just because he holds four legal passports. He has made repeated visits to Russia, traveling the country by train and using social media to befriend Russians, including people with ties to the military. His multiple passports, while unusual, could simply reflect his love of travel and quirky persona.
It is highly unlikely that he was working for an American intelligence service, former C.I.A. officers have said. The United States almost never sends its officers into Russia without diplomatic protections, they said. And Mr. Whelan, who works for a global auto parts manufacturer, does not have the kind of business contacts normally of interest to intelligence services.
Mr. Whelan is both a “British and American citizen,” said Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, but said the United States will continue to lead efforts to get him released.
“We are giving him every support that we can, but we don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games,” Mr. Hunt said. “It is desperately worrying, not just for the individual but their families, and we are extremely worried about him and his family.”
Relations between Moscow and London became deeply strained last year after Russia’s attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer living in Britain. The attack led to a coordinated actions by countries around the globe to expel Russian diplomats, a reaction that took Moscow by surprise.
Mr. Whelan’s multiple passports could also yield a kind of multinational response, such as the visa restrictions, that Russia had not anticipated.
“This could be an example of a Russian miscalculation,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former C.I.A. officer who is now an analyst with the Center for a New American Security. “There is a constant overestimation of their ability to orchestrate events. Now they have this idea they were going to detain someone in a tit-for-tat diplomacy with the United States. But then, whoops, this guy has four different citizenships, and that complicates the whole situation for the Russians.”
So far, the public comments from Mr. Whelan’s other home countries have been more muted.
Ireland, which is not a member of NATO, traditionally has a more neutral foreign policy stance, but it is not clear how aggressive Dublin is intervening in the case.
A spokesman for Ireland’s department of foreign affairs and trade provided little detail on its effort but said the Irish embassy in Moscow “has requested consular access to an Irish citizen currently detained in Russia after receiving a request for assistance.”
The State Department said the ambassador in Moscow, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., had been allowed to visit Mr. Whelan in the notorious Lefortovo Prison where he is being held.
A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said a Canadian citizen was arrested in Russia but did not say whether Ottawa was taking action on his behalf.
Mr. Whelan was born in Ottawa to British parents, said his twin brother, David, who also maintains Canadian citizenship. It was not clear how Paul Whelan obtained Irish citizenship, though people with Irish ancestors are frequently eligible.
Mr. Whelan’s Marine Corps conviction came in 2008. He was also reduced in rank to private and confined to his quarters, mess hall and house of worship for 60 days; he then was given a bad conduct discharge. The details of Mr. Whelan’s crimes were first reported by the Washington Post.
During the investigation, Mr. Whelan was also accused of using false Social Security numbers in the Marines training program in order to grade his own examinations, potentially to earn advancement in pay and rank he did not qualify for.
Russia has released little official information about the evidence against Mr. Whelan, and experts pushed back on Friday about the only report in Russia so far about what might have transpired.
That report, by Rosbalt, a Russian news agency close to Moscow’s security services, quoted an unidentified intelligence source as saying that Mr. Whelan was arrested in his hotel room five minutes after receiving a U.S.B. stick containing the names of all the employees at a classified security agency.
Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst, mocked the Rosbalt article, noting that nothing was reported about the Russian who handed over the stick, which suggested that the whole thing had a “made-for-TV” air about it.
Transferring such a file online or via Bluetooth would be much easier, he wrote on Facebook, except if you want a vivid, self-explanatory picture to broadcast on state television. “The question arises whether the American knew what was on the flash drive and how to prove now that he knew it,” Mr. Rogov wrote.
In one of the most notorious cases of planting evidence, Nicholas Daniloff, a Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, was arrested in the Soviet capital in 1986 and charged with espionage after a Russian whom he considered a friend handed him a package that turned out to contain photographs of Russian soldiers then fighting in Afghanistan.
The American reporter was soon traded for Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet scientist who worked for the United Nations, who had earlier been detained in the United States for receiving classified information.
While dealing with four governments instead of one will undoubtedly complicate matters, in some ways it plays into the Kremlin’s hands for its domestic audience, suggested Nikolai Petrov, a political-science professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
Senior Russian officials constantly accuse the West of conspiring together to bring Russia to its knees through joint measures like sanctions, and Mr. Whelan’s four passports could serve as a kind of corroborative evidence.
“It demonstrates what they are talking about when they say there is a conspiracy in the West,” he said. “In this particular case, the person is simultaneously representing different hostile governments.”
Some current and former American officials believe Mr. Putin seized Mr. Whelan to trade him to the United States for Maria Butina, a Russian who pleaded guilty in Washington last month to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. Given that she will likely be expelled from the United States after serving six months in jail, however, it is not clear that Mr. Whelan was grabbed for an exchange.
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