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Paul Whelan, American Accused of Spying, Is Said to Be Charged in Russia

He had done two tours in Iraq, and one of his initial trips to Russia seemed to come in 2006, when he visited for two weeks as part of a special furlough program.

Mr. Whelan had at least 70 friends on Vkontakte, the social media website, although the number dropped rapidly as word of his arrest spread. He did not post often, but wrote congratulatory notes in Russian on various major holidays and occasionally voiced his opinions about American politics.

“GOD SAVE PRESIDENT TRUMP!!” he wrote on the day of the president’s inauguration, in January 2017, bracketing the sentence with two American flag emojis. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he posted a Russian cartoon suggesting that Alaska might be next, as it was once a Russian territory. “Putin can have Alaska, as long as he takes Sarah Palin, too!!” Mr. Whelan wrote.

Some of the Russians who befriended Mr. Whelan on Vkontakte declined to comment, one offered to sell information about him and a few offered some details about their encounters.

Sergei Artyomenko, 26, a Moscow hair stylist, said Mr. Whelan had followed him on Instagram six years ago while he was doing his military service. They never met in person, although they had a running joke about his getting a haircut. “I am not sure how he found me, but he would initiate small talk every six months or so,” Mr. Artyomenko wrote, adding that they had mostly discussed interesting places to travel.

Mr. Whelan contacted him last Friday, but the Russian was again too busy to meet. “He didn’t tell me why he came here, but has been always saying that he likes Russia and Siberia,” he said.

Most of those he reached out to said Mr. Whelan seemed like a friendly, open American interested in learning the Russian language and traveling around the country. Although he studied Russian, some of his social media contacts said he communicated through Google Translate, and Mr. Zherebenkov said that all of the legal work was done through a translator.

Source: NYT > World

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