At the end of October, one of the most famous Russian prisoners in the United States, Maria Butina, was released. The young woman was accused of working as a foreign agent in the United States without registration, but as a result of her cooperation with the investigation, Maria actually spent less than a year and a half behind bars. Nevertheless, her case became resonant not only because of the active media campaign raised by the Russian authorities in her defense, but also because Butina’s activity was widely used in the U.S. information space as evidence of “Russian interference.”
The case of Maria Butina allows us to draw quite serious conclusions not only about the methods of the Russian influence on the politics of Western countries, but also about the situation inside the United States itself. Here are at least some facts that have been discovered as a result of this high-profile process.
Amateurs in the “service of the Fatherland”
First, Butina’s example showed that Russia is actively using “amateurs” both to lobby for its interests abroad and to gather information in political circles. Despite calling Butina a “spy” in much of American media, it seems that the young woman was not a professional intelligence officer. According to the FBI, she actively coordinated her plans with Russian ex-senator Alexander Torshin in unprotected correspondence, openly met with individuals suspected of working for Russian intelligence, and in an informal environment flaunted her contacts with the Kremlin. It’s unlikely that a person who has completed at least a minimal intelligence training would behave so carelessly. It’s worth saying that Butina was not officially accused of espionage, since she didn’t try to get access to secret information.
Nevertheless, she most likely had a certain connection with the Russian special services, at least because in the materials already mentioned in the investigation there is a note that was found in her apartment with instructions on how to answer questions about working for the FSB. Moreover, according to American media, Butina, while intoxicated, boasted of her ties to Russian intelligence. Former KGB lieutenant colonel Akif Gasanov, who served about 15 years in Soviet intelligence, suggests that Butina could have had long-term contacts with Russian intelligence services, namely the FSB, while living in Russia; that is, she was a counterintelligence agent.
Such a version could explain many contradictions in her biography – in particular, the fact that her plans promoting such a dangerous and unpopular idea among the authorities as the free gun ownership by citizens of a totalitarian country were approved, according to her, personally by Vladimir Putin. Moreover, while living in Russia, Maria freely met with the Americans, collaborated with the Russian opposition, and continued to work as an assistant to the senator, without any problems with the FSB. This version explains both the note found in her apartment and the reason why, while having successfully established close relationships with Americans, Butina, accustomed to working in her own country, was not trained in safety procedures for working abroad, and in this sense remained an amateur.
The use of ordinary people by the Russian authorities, both those who had and didn’t have previous contacts with special services, has become a very common practice in recent years. We can mention the numerous discoveries of the contacts that American politicians had with oligarchs, businessmen, lawyers, propagandists and so on, who were close to the Kremlin. Moreover, informal “agents of influence” can also be ordinary members of the diaspora, acting with varying degrees of awareness. In fact, such people’s first contact with special services may take place not before emigration, but while already living abroad – for example, during ordinary visits to their homeland. This contact may begin with a regular questioning or interrogation, and then, depending on the situation, develop into a closer relationship.
The use of such people entails certain advantages for Russian intelligence. Western intelligence agencies cannot track contacts of Russian intelligence with people “recruited for cooperation” during trips to Russia, and therefore they can do their job unnoticed by Western counterintelligence for a long time. These people are not staff officers of special services and, more often than not, they are not even among the agents of foreign intelligence, and therefore the risk of their exposure by defectors is minimized.
In addition, amateurs are capable of, as they say, “overcoming by sheer quantity.” The already mentioned Akif Gasanov suggests that the FSB has sent to America not only Butina, but other people like her, as they say, “for beginner’s luck.” It is easy to assume that in this case at least some of such informal informants can succeed.
There are tangible disadvantages to working with amateurs. As we have seen from the example of the Butina case, it is common for ordinary people to make mistakes, behave carelessly and talk too much about their activities. Often, amateurs begin to overly actively contact people and collect information that they were not interested in before, they can’t keep their lies straight, or, as in Butina’s case, their legend may simply not correspond to the realities of life in Russia. Moreover, if such people manage to find high-level connections, they still sooner or later land on the radar of counterintelligence, and then their mistakes become catastrophic.
In addition, the failure of amateurs, although not as tangible for intelligence as the failure of a staff member, also carries the risks of disclosing important information. It may include the ways the special services work, their goals, methods for achieving these goals, subjects of interest, professional tricks and – most importantly – identities of the people who helped Russian agents.
In particular, the Butina case clearly demonstrated how successfully Russia acts through conservative organizations, not only by lobbying for gun rights but also through evangelical churches, prayer breakfasts organized by them, conservative politicians and public figures, entrepreneurs, and so on. Another consequence of the investigation was drawing attention of U.S. law enforcement and the media to how the Russian government works with foreign universities and organizes work with young people abroad.
The investigation made public which particular “think tanks” and specific people assisted Butina in her activities in the United States. In particular, the American historian and publicist Yuri Felshtinsky, based on the case materials published in the press, alleges that the Soviet emigrants Dmitry Simes and Anton Fedyashin were Butina’s “handlers.” In a word, the “Butina case” revealed a whole network of Russian influence in America and, given the length of her cooperation with the investigation, it can be assumed that Maria herself added very significant details regarding specific elements of this network.
Moreover, the excessive activity of the Russian Foreign Ministry in trying to defend Butina, disproportionate to their efforts to help other Russian citizens who were imprisoned in the United States, only strengthened American prosecutors in their belief that the accused was of particular value in the eyes of Russia. The prosecution even used the number of visits that the employees of the Russian consulate made to Butina in prison as indirect evidence of her guilt.
Secondly, the Maria Butina case revealed the desire and willingness of some American politicians and social activists to cooperate with the Russian government. We mean not only the Russians who once upon a time had emigrated to the United States, but also the “native” Americans. Maria did not act “under the false flag” and did not hide her goals from American partners: to build informal channels of cooperation of American politicians, primarily from the Republican Party, with the Russian government. This was precisely what her project, “Description of Diplomacy,” approved by Butina’s American boyfriend, Paul Erickson, was about.
The young woman organized trips of the delegates from the National Rifle Association (NRA) to Russia, where they met with Alexander Torshin and other Russian politicians. At the same time, both the NRA members and other influential people in the U.S., whom Butina and her patrons spoke with, understood very well that they were offered contacts specifically with Russian officials. Nevertheless, many of Maria’s American acquaintances positively accepted the idea of “establishing relations with Moscow,” facilitated the visit of the Russian delegation to the United States and spoke informally with State Duma deputies at the National Prayer Breakfast. This situation cast a shadow not only on the NRA and conservative politicians, but also on American justice, which in no way held accountable either those who helped Butina in America or those who enthusiastically responded to her proposal.
True, Paul Erickson was later charged with fraud, but the charge was not officially connected with the Butina case. Members of Congress also began to independently investigate NRA ties with Russia. Initially, Democrats from the House of Representatives Ted Lieu and Kathleen Rice took such an initiative, and a few months later a report on this matter was prepared by the Senate Finance Committee. According to the document, senior officials of the organization knew that the Russians used their connections in the association to gain access to the new president of the United States, and nevertheless encouraged relations with Russian citizens. However, these facts were not reflected in any way in the materials of the investigation of Maria Butina’s activities, and it can be assumed that if it were not for the initiative of individual congressmen, such attempts would not have affected the American “peace-makers” at all.
“I think if I was Miss Butina’s defense team or I was the judge, a legitimate question to ask is how is it fair she spends two years in prison when an American citizen, who was arguably a co-conspirator, gets no time at all, ” Charles Burnham, an attorney, said in this regard in the interview with the CNN.
Intelligence without espionage
As for the trial itself and the verdict, the active support of Maria Butina from the Russian Foreign Ministry, as noted above, rather harmed her. However, Russia itself looked good against this background, emphasizing its image as a state that “does not abandon its own people” – even if they make a deal with the “enemy.” Of course, this could not negate the damage caused to their image by the information that was revealed as a result of the investigation. However, in the eyes of other Russians collaborating with the Kremlin, this position of the authorities was perceived as encouraging.
In turn, the Americans involved in the case gave cause for criticism, adding to the prosecutor’s memorandum a 5-page expert opinion of the former deputy head of the FBI counterintelligence department, Robert Anderson. According to Anderson, Butina’s actions in the United States were part of a carefully prepared intelligence operation by the Russian Federation. Anderson claims that the Russian woman performed the function of a “spotter,” who evaluated the American figures she met for their further recruitment by professional Russian intelligence agents, and then “assisted the Russian government in increasing its geopolitical power or undermining and harming that of the United States.” In the end, Anderson concluded that “Butina provided the Russian Federation with information that skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States.”
Even though Anderson’s assumptions may not be far from the truth, from a legal standpoint the very fact of the influence of a personal opinion of a private citizen on the sentence makes it look suspect. Moreover, in the memo prepared by him Anderson admitted that Butina did not commit any “classic” espionage actions; therefore, in fact, he called her acts criminal even though they are not formally a violation of the law. As for the assessment of the damage caused by Butina, such an assessment is also usually the result of complex counterintelligence work, and even active-duty intelligence officers are not always able to reliably assess the damage done in present time, not to mention its effects in the future.
All of the above gave the Russian media the opportunity to assert that the case was “fabricated,” emphasizing the political nature of the persecution of the Russian woman, even though Butina herself pleaded guilty to acting without necessary registration and very emotionally repented for her deeds. Thus, having actually decided on a rather mild sentence, the American justice system presented it to the public in bad light, which not only added to the sympathy that many Russian emigrants felt for Butina, but also raised a number of alarming questions. In particular: will any political discussions by the Russians or discussions of personal acquaintances in the United States be considered “criminal,” and how to determine the line where even legal actions can be used to the detriment of the United States
Thus, the Butina case revealed very complex and conflicting trends. On the one hand, the Russian authorities and even special services really use ordinary people in their operations much more actively than their Western counterparts, which in principle is characteristic of authoritarian regimes. It is logical that against the backdrop of deteriorated relations with Russia, such actions require some kind of response. On the other hand, the response itself so far seems inconsistent and rudimentary both from the point of view of a legal opinion and from the position of explaining it to the public in the context of an “information warfare.”