03:43 GMT +318 August 2019
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    Espionage Arrests: Who's a Spy & Who's a Political Poker Chip?

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    Andrew Korybko

    The arrests of alleged spies by the US and Russia has caused a simmering back and forth dispute about whether the accused individuals are really secret agents or just political poker chips.

    Russian national and NRA enthusiast Maria Butina was arrested in DC last summer on charges of acting as an unregistered "foreign agent", and she later plead guilty to "conspiracy" to act as one as part of a plea deal that was controversially reached after weeks of solitary confinement. Moscow always maintained that she's innocent of all charges and wouldn't have reached the deal that she did had it not been for the intensely traumatizing conditions of her imprisonment.

    Her case was beginning to fade away from the news until shortly before the New Year when Russia arrested Paul Whelan — a former US Marine and possible holder of up to four separate nationalities — after what local media reported was his attempt to obtain classified information about the country's secret services. American voices immediately speculated that this was a trumped-up case designed to create the conditions for a so-called "prisoner swap" with Butina, though Moscow adamantly denied that this was the case and insisted that the facts would eventually become public proving his crimes against the country. Just a day afterwards, however, the US arrested another Russian.

    Dmitry Makarenko was arrested in the Northern Mariana Islands on the allegation that he was involved in illegally exporting military equipment in what almost unquestionably seems to be a tit-for-tat retaliation for Whelan's arrest the day earlier. Details are still emerging about these two cases but it looks like the Russian commentators who point out this so-called "coincidence" are onto something and have a lot more to work with than their American counterparts who said that Whelan's arrest was a response to Butina's. Whatever the truth may be, the overall theme is that the US and Russia have recently made public their arrests of one another's accused spies.

    This in and of itself isn't unprecedented but it is unusual since these law enforcement actions usually occur away from the public eye and are discussed behind closed doors with one another's diplomats, not the media. There's evidently a lot of tension in the air when it comes to Russian-American relations as a result of the US' incessant strategy of pressure against its Eurasian Great Power rival, and the last three espionage arrests seem to be a sign of these times. The question on everyone's mind, however, is which of these individuals are really secret agents and which of them might just be political poker chips.

    Andrew Korybko is joined by Zoya Conover, Political commentator from the US state of Georgia and Matthew Farag, Chicago-based political commentator.

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    United States, Russian-American relations, espionage, Dmitry Makarenko, Paul Whelan, Maria Butina, Russia
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