Moscow never uses people as pawns in a diplomatic game, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday commenting on the detention of Paul Whelan in Russia on suspicion of espionage.
"In Russia people are never used as pawns in a diplomatic game," Peskov said. "Russia conducts counterintelligence activity against those who are suspected of espionage, this is done on a regular basis," TASS quoted him as saying.
Peskov stressed that he is not aware of statements on a possible swap of Russian citizen Maria Butina arrested in the United States for American citizen Paul Whelan, declining to comment on the reasons for his detention in Russia. "I haven’t heard about these statements, so I have nothing to say here," Peskov said, commenting on the proposal to exchange Butina for Whelan.
The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Paul Whelan on December 28, 2018, in Moscow while on a spy mission. A criminal investigation was opened against him on espionage charges carrying a punishment of up to 20 years in jail. Whelan holds citizenship in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman visited Whelan at the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center on January 2.
Maria Butina, 30, was arrested in Washington DC on July 15, 2018 right before the Helsinki meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump. The US Department of Justice said that she was suspected of acting "as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation."
On December 13, Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the US law governing foreign agents operating in the country. The next court hearing has been scheduled for February 12.