RUSSIA “FEELS impotent in the world, so they’re taking political hostages.” So shouted the American Paul Whelan from inside a glass cage in a Moscow courtroom Monday — and we’re inclined to agree with him. The 50-year-old former Marine, who was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor on espionage charges following a secret trial, is being all-but-openly wielded by the regime of Vladimir Putin to obtain the freedom of one or more prominent Russian criminals imprisoned in the United States — a tactic until recently more typical of regimes such as Iran and North Korea.
Unlike Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer convicted in U.S. federal court of seeking to supply weapons to Colombian narcoterrorists, or Konstantin Yaroshenko, found guilty of conspiring to deliver tons of Colombian cocaine to Africa for transshipment to the United States, Mr. Whelan lacks a plausible profile as either a criminal or a spy. An employee of a Michigan auto parts manufacturer, he was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding in December 2018 when a Russian acquaintance handed him a flash drive he thought contained tourist photos. Soon after, he was arrested and charged with receiving classified documents.
Mr. Whelan was held in conditions the U.S. Embassy rightly described as “shameful,” denied phone contact with his family for the first 16 months of his detention as well as treatment for a hernia until it required emergency surgery last month. His trial was a sham, with ludicrously concocted evidence. Mr. Whelan told reporters he was identified by the Russians as being a brigadier general, even though he was dishonorably discharged from the Marines years ago. “Do I look like a brigadier general?” he shouted Monday from his cage. No, he doesn’t.
Both the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced Mr. Whelan’s treatment and conviction, with Mr. Pompeo saying “the United States is outraged.” But it’s not clear that applies to President Trump, who just weeks ago was agitating to have Russia rejoin the Group of Seven nations. The president has rarely, if ever, criticized the regime of Mr. Putin, and though he imposed sanctions on NATO ally Turkey when it wrongly imprisoned an American pastor, he has had nothing to say about Mr. Whelan.
Mr. Whelan’s attorney said Monday that an exchange for his client already is being discussed. If so, Russia stands to obtain the same benefit from Washington recently extracted by Iran: the release of criminals convicted of serious offenses in exchange for innocent Americans, who were seized precisely for that purpose. Perhaps that’s the most humane response to the case of Mr. Whelan, who certainly does not deserve to spend years in a Russian labor camp. But perhaps also Mr. Trump could, at least, stop lobbying to include Mr. Putin in summit meetings of the world’s leading democracies.