British authorities may issue a travel warning for Russia, the United Kingdom’s top diplomat said Friday.
“Well this is obviously something that is under active consideration,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the U.K.-based Sky News. “We are constantly reviewing our travel advice in all parts of the world. And if we see the need to make a change, then we will make it.”
Hunt revealed that internal deliberation in the wake of Russian officials arresting American Paul Whelan on charges of espionage. The discussion is also taking place one day after the State Department wanted that U.S. citizens traveling in China are at risk of being detained or subject to “exit bans” that prevent them from leaving.
“The US are leading on this because he is a British and an American citizen,” Hunt said of Whelan. “We are giving him every support we can. But we don’t agree with individuals being used in diplomatic chess games because it is desperately worrying for not just the individual and the families and we are all extremely worried about him and his family as we hear this news.”
Russian officials say that Whelan, who was reportedly traveling in Moscow for a friend’s wedding, was in the country on a spy-related mission. They have made few public statements on his case, but Russian media reports suggest that he “was caught essentially receiving a flash drive [that] contained names of Russian intelligence agents,” as NPR put it.
“Well we are not ruling out any theories at all at this stage as to why this might have happened,” Hunt said. “But our position is very, very clear which is a very straight forward point that individuals should not be used as pulls of diplomatic leverage. And we need to see what these charges are against him. Understand whether there is a case or not.”
Hunt’s interest in Whelan points to a new dimension of the case — the Michigan native holds passports from at least four different countries, as Canada and Ireland also have taken an interest in his arrest.
“Most people don’t live lives that necessitate, require or even allow four passports,” University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas told the Washington Post. “It’s certainly not illegal.”
Russia’s handling of the case is unusual, whether its charges seem credible or Whelan’s detention seems arbitrary, experts say. “In the normal chain of events, one tends to use expulsions and exchanges [rather than arrests] simply because it really isn’t worth getting into tit-for-tat,” Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Examiner.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin might see Whelan’s arrest as a useful opportunity to embarrass the United States.
“It just enhances his image as a strong leader at home,” the Wisconsin Republican told the Washington Examiner. “He appears strong, the West appears weak, and he takes the next step.”
By the same token, Johnson also said Americans planning to travel abroad should be “very careful” about their destinations.
“I wouldn’t necessarily travel to Turkey, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia right now,” said Johnson, who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe. “If I was just a private citizen, there are a host of places I would not go, and unfortunately Russia and China are two on that list right now.”