President Trump has sought warmer ties with Russia since taking office, but the relationship hasn’t improved much. A reminder of why came on Monday when a Moscow judge found Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine from Michigan, guilty of spying and sentenced him to 16 years in a high-security prison. “This is all a political theater,” Mr. Whelan said afterward.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested the American citizen in December 2018. Mr. Whelan says he was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding, but Russian authorities accused him of carrying a USB drive containing state secrets. He was working as head of security for a car-parts supplier at the time and told his lawyer he wasn’t aware of any classified material on the drive.
Russian officials limited his access to family and the American government while holding his mail for months at a time. When he grew sick behind bars, Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed he was faking it. The proceedings Monday were conducted entirely in Russian, and Mr. Whelan understood nothing as they unfolded. President Vladimir Putin may claim the court ruled on its own, but Russia doesn’t have an independent judiciary.
“The United States is outraged by the decision,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He added that “the treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling.” The Whelan family thinks this farce is designed to give Moscow more leverage in a future prisoner swap.
Arbitrarily holding American citizens is a popular tactic among pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. It isn’t acceptable behavior for a member of the elite Group of Seven nations, which Mr. Trump wants Russia to rejoin.
The President’s Russia policy has been uneven at best. His plan to withdraw some U.S. forces from Germany is an undeserved gift to Mr. Putin, as was his declaration that he wants the Russian to join the G-7 despite the opposition of other democratic leaders. Yet he has confronted the country over its violation of arms-control treaties and, despite recent controversies, provided Ukraine with critical assistance in its fight against Moscow.
Mr. Trump has made returning Americans held hostage abroad a priority—to the point of imposing sanctions on NATO ally Turkey in 2018 over its detention of an American pastor. The Whelan conviction is a Russian thumb in the eye of America and Mr. Trump.