The Kremlin clock sits on the Spasskaya tower, left, near St. Basil’s cathedral on Red Square in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Russia Cites Espionage Probe in Detaining U.S. Citizen in Moscow

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s Federal Security Service detained a U.S. citizen in Moscow on suspicion of espionage on Dec. 28, according to a statement on its website on Monday.

The investigation department of the FSB, as the domestic security service is widely known, started a criminal case and investigations are underway, Interfax said, citing the FSB. It didn’t provide any details on where the person was being held. The charges he faces could carry a prison term of as much as 20 years, according to Russia’s criminal code.

The U.S. has been alerted to the detention, according to a State Department official who said Russian authorities are expected to provide consular access to the person as required under the Vienna Convention. The State Department official didn’t name the person being held, but the Russian security service identified him as Paul Whelan. His identity couldn’t be confirmed independently.

Russia Cites Espionage Probe in Detaining U.S. Citizen in Moscow

The detention comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the U.S., including over Maria Butina, a Russian gun enthusiast who pleaded guilty earlier this month in the U.S. to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent. Butina said in court that she’d been operating as a Kremlin agent as she befriended National Rifle Association leaders and influential U.S. conservatives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke out about the case on Dec. 20, saying he didn’t understand why Butina was detained and that he would support her.

Spy scandals have also rocked diplomatic relations recently in other parts of the world. Earlier this month, a third Canadian citizen was detained in China. The detentions came as Beijing fumed over the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada this month as part of a U.S. extradition effort.

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