By Grace Kennan Warnecke
Less than three months before the American general election, Russia has appeared frequently in the news, but in somewhat different guises. As U.S.-Russian relations become more tense, espionage and related stories have increased. The more you read these stories, the more they connect in different ways.
The internet plays a role in many of them. Facebook and Twitter have announced the reappearance of a Russian-backed network called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which positions itself as a left-wing American group aimed at pushing voters away from Biden and helping President Trump. IRA was very active and had many viewers in the 2016 election. There is also a Peace Data Site, another covert operation run from Moscow. However, apparently IRA and the Peace Data Site have lost American viewers in the past four years. One possible reason is that when the photos of the supposed editors of Peace Data Site were examined more closely, they turned out to be computer-generated images. Also, Facebook and Twitter users are becoming smarter and more suspicious of the fake agencies involved.
Aleksei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, was just taken out of a medically induced coma in a German hospital in Berlin. The hospital doctors have spoken up to affirm that Navalny was the victim of a poison attack in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Doctors and family are convinced the attack was carried out by the FSB (former KGB). He was poisoned with Novichok, a neurotoxin developed in the Soviet Union. It is the same poison that was given to former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. While Navalny, the leader of the opposition to Vladimir Putin, has been a constant irritant to Putin over many years, he is still far from a serious political threat. So, it is curious that the government took the drastic step of poisoning him now. My suspicion is that Putin has been alarmed by the massive demonstrations taking place in neighboring Belarus, as well as weeks of street demonstrations in Russia’s Far East.
Meanwhile, Putin’s hegemony has even touched the Vineyard. Paul Whelan, the brother of Vineyard artist Elizabeth Whelan, whom I spoke to on Saturday, has recently been sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison. Paul, a former Marine, served four years in Iraq, during which time he started visiting Russia as a tourist. Paul always loved traveling and exploring foreign lands. He learned rudimentary Russian during those exploratory expeditions, signed up for the Russian social media site, VKontakte (or VK), and met and befriended a number of pen pals who had approached him via his VK site. In December 2018, when a fellow Marine was marrying a Russian girlfriend in Moscow, Paul was invited as a guest and to help wedding guests move around the city. On the day of the wedding, a VK friend of Paul named Ilya Yatsenko, whom he had known for 10 years, appeared at his hotel room door and gifted Paul with a thumb drive, saying it contained some travel photos. Paul somewhat naively accepted this gift. He knew that Yatsenko had been in the military and was currently working for the FSB, but assumed they were good friends. Almost immediately after Ilya’s departure, the Russian security forces were at the door and took the thumb drive, which allegedly contained compromising information and the names of Russian FSB agents. Paul was taken to Lefortovo Prison, and has never been seen by his family since. He has recently been moved to a prison colony in Mordovia, Russia. While there is gossip that he is being saved for a trade, his future is unclear. Both the previous and the current ambassadors to Russia, Huntsman and Sulllivan, have visited Paul, and have tried to extricate him from what certainly appears to be an obvious setup, but to no avail. Had they tried in happier times, he could probably have been quietly let go. Trump has been approached, but to even less avail.
This story brings shivers. I have lived in the Soviet Union in bad times and in good ones. My father, the U.S. Ambassador in 1952, was expelled by Stalin, and my family flown out under a cloud of Soviet disapproval. I remember years when Americans and Russians were not able to see each other, and times when we spent happy evenings drinking tea or vodka in miniscule Russian kitchens, and thought we were anticipating normal relations between our two countries. The current headline stories we read reflect the tense relations going on now between Russia and the U.S. They also illustrate the ambivalent attitude our current President seems to have toward Russia and Putin.
Suddenly in the past two weeks we are hearing about individuals caught up in conflict who might have been ignored a few years ago — Alexei Navalny, the Green Beret Peter Debbins, and Paul Whelan, who is serving the beginning of 16 years imprisonment in a Russian penal colony. Trump has had some much-publicized success in freeing Americans arrested and imprisoned in foreign countries. I, for one, would like to see him use some of his vaunted friendship and admiration for Putin to do the same to gain the release of this unfortunate American, now seemingly lost in the vast Russian penal system.
Grace Kennan Warnecke is the former chairman of the board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and author of the memoir “Daughter of the Cold War.” She lives part-time in Vineyard Haven.