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Russia Arrests U.S. Man In Moscow On Suspicion Of Spying

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start this hour with a story of that U.S. citizen who's being held in Russia on suspicion of spying. The State Department has confirmed the detention but hasn't provided further details. Russia's security services have given a name, though, Paul Whelan. Today, his family released a statement saying he is not a spy. They said they learned of his arrest on Monday morning from the media and are, quote, "deeply concerned for his well-being."

Let's ground this development in what we do know about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. To do that, we've reached Ambassador Daniel Fried. He's a veteran U.S. diplomat with a focus on Russia and Central Europe. He's served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Ambassador Fried, thanks for being here.

DANIEL FRIED: Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: So I guess it would be helpful if you could help us understand how the Trump administration - or any administration, for that matter - needs to navigate a moment like this.

FRIED: The Trump administration Russia hands are now waiting to hear from the Russians about when they can have access to - to Paul Whelan. The Russians are obligated, under bilateral treaties, to give us access, let - in other words, let somebody from our embassy in Moscow see him. So they're waiting for that. It's supposed - it ought to happen today at the latest.

So they're waiting to see, and they're hoping the guy will be released quickly. Otherwise, this could devolve into another U.S.-Russia standoff. We've had these in the past.

MARTIN: The Trump administration will be waiting for details of any alleged crime that Paul Whelan has committed.

FRIED: Well, that's right, details and, more likely, invented details. I would be skeptical of anything the Russians said about Paul Whelan.

MARTIN: What kind of leverage does President Trump have at this point?

FRIED: Well, the - there is some speculation that the Russians arrested Paul Whelan as some kind of retaliation for the arrest and conviction of Butina, the Russian woman accused of basically violating U.S. law by representing Russian interests with the NRA and other organizations - Maria Butina.

So it's possible that a la the Cold War, the Russians are interested in some kind of swap. But the administration, at least people I spoke to yesterday, raised the issue of Pastor Brunson. That is the American cleric in Turkey who was falsely arrested and triggered some Russian - some U.S. pressure on the Turks before he was released. So it may be that the Trump administration pushes back against the Russians in other areas.

Relations are bad right now. And we're going to see how the admin - the Trump administration responds. But this feels like the beginning of a Cold War-style standoff rather than some legitimate - legitimate arrest of a U.S. spy.

MARTIN: You mentioned other areas where the U.S. could push. What are they?

FRIED: Well, the U.S. weapon of choice these days, the kind of default mode, is sanctions. There are - there are still - despite our existing sanctions on Russia right now, there's a lot of headroom to escalate if we chose to do so. We chose sanctions against the Turks, who are, after all, an ally. And we even imposed some. And as I said, people in the Trump administration yesterday were talking quietly about that option. We will see what they do. But they don't seem in a - an accommodating mood.

MARTIN: So here we are, Ambassador. You and I have spoken several times over 2018, different machinations of the U.S.-Russian relationship. What are you thinking as you look down the pike at the new year? How would you describe the relationship between the U.S. and Russia at this moment? And how can you see it evolving, especially as we anticipate the end of the Mueller probe?

FRIED: U.S.-Russia relations are as bad now as they have been since before the end of the Cold War, either the early 19 - early, mid-1980s, before the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship developed in a positive way, or even the early 1960s with standoffs over Berlin.

So relations are bad. I see no sign that they're going to get particularly better. And the reason is not this U.S. administration or the last one. The reason is Vladimir Putin. His conditions for good relations with the U.S. are those no U.S. administration can or should accept.

MARTIN: Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Ambassador Fried, thank you, as always. We appreciate it.

FRIED: Thanks for the opportunity. Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.