WASHINGTON • He loved to travel around Russia by train, collected tea glass holders stamped with Russian historical scenes and maintained social media friendships with ordinary Russians, from a hairstylist to retired members of the country's military.
Now Paul Whelan, a former US Marine and current security chief for BorgWarner, an international auto parts manufacturer, has been accused of espionage by Russia and is in solitary confinement in Moscow's notorious Lefortovo Prison - long used by the KGB and its successors for Soviet dissidents and foreign spies.
Former CIA officers said they did not think Whelan was a spy.
Whatever the truth, Whelan, 48, has become the latest pawn in a face-off between Russia and the United States as rising tensions take on the cast of the Cold War years, when espionage charges and spy swaps were common.
Whelan's arrest comes after a Russian woman, Maria Butina, admitted to being involved in an organised effort, backed by Russian officials, to lobby influential Americans. She pleaded guilty on Dec 13 in US District Court in Washington to conspiring to act as a foreign agent.
On Thursday, the Russian authorities formally charged Whelan, who could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted, his lawyer, Mr Vladimir Zherebenkov, said.
There is little doubt, however, that Whelan was an unusual person with out-of-the ordinary travel and associations.
A University of Michigan graduate, Whelan was deployed twice to Iraq before he was court-martialled by the Marine Corps in 2008 on charges of larceny and passing bad cheques. He had visited Russia since at least 2006 and was familiar to many Russians who had known him or interacted with him online. They said he seemed to pop up every six months or so.
Unusual for an occasional visitor, Whelan had an account on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook, for about a decade. He did not post often, but wrote congratulatory notes in Russian on various major holidays and occasionally voiced his opinions about American politics.
Whelan's family said he was in Russia on his most recent trip, last month, for the wedding of a friend from the Marine Corps who was marrying a Russian woman.
That is where the Russian authorities apprehended Whelan last Friday during a meeting with a Russian citizen in his hotel room. Rosbalt, a Russian news agency close to the security services, quoted an unidentified intelligence source as saying that Whelan was accused of trying to recruit the Russian to obtain classified information about staff members at various Russian agencies.
CIA officers expressed scepticism that Whelan was a spy. This was partly because, unlike Whelan, most CIA officers work in foreign countries while posing as diplomats. And if caught in an act of espionage, their diplomatic passports ensure they cannot be long detained, and at worst face expulsion.
Former CIA officials said the agency almost never sends officers into Russia without diplomatic protection.