Activist Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison for Role in Russian Influence Campaign
Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights activist who pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to influence U.S. government policy in the run-up to the 2016 election, was sentenced Friday to 18 months in federal court in Washington for failing to register as a foreign agent.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan also granted a request to deport Butina, who has been in U.S. custody since July 2018, to Russia when her prison term ends.
Butina is the first Russian national to be convicted of meddling in U.S. affairs during the 2016 presidential contest.
Prior to her sentencing, Butina asked Chutkan to be merciful in handing down her punishment, telling the judge, in a shaky voice, that she never intended to damage America or its political process.
“The United States has always been kind to me,” she said. “I just didn’t register because I didn’t know to.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson told the court that Butina believed the “back channel she sought to establish” with the incoming presidential administration “was of extreme importance.”
Her actions, Kenerson said, “had serious potential to harm the U.S. political process.”
Judge Chutkan agreed. Although she credited Butina with the nearly nine months she’s already served, the judge opined that “this was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student.”
Court Documents Provide Window Into Russian Influence Campaign
Like the redacted Mueller report released to Congress last week, court filings in the Butina case pull the curtain back on the desperate and scattered attempt by Russia to forge a back channel relationship with the incoming Trump administration in late 2016 and early 2017.
In filings late last week, Butina said she worked under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official, and with an American political operative on a multiyear scheme to establish unofficial lines of communications with Americans who could influence U.S. politics.
In a sentencing request filed April 19, Butina attorneys Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry insisted their client was motivated only by good intentions of improving political relations between the countries.
Driscoll is a partner with the McGlinchey Stafford law firm, leads the firm’s Washington, DC office, and serves as co-chair of the firm’s White Collar/Government Investigations Group. He is also affiliated with the Federalist Society. Carry is an associate with McGlinchey Stafford.
They went on to say she was extremely remorseful for her actions and “has done everything she could to atone for her mistakes through cooperation and substantial assistance.”
But in their own filings last week, prosecutors with the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s national security division painted a very different picture.
Their documents portray a calculating young woman who was swept up in the excitement of cultivating influence and connections and feared others, inside Russia and out, would muscle her out of the way and take credit for her work when they realized how valuable it was.
“Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country,” wrote U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu in a document describing her efforts to infiltrate and gain influence over conservative political groups in the United States, including the National Rifle Association.
“She was not a trained intelligence officer. But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States,” Liu said.
According to prosecutors, Butina acted as an agent of Russian officials from as early as March 2015 and until her arrest in 2018, providing those officials with “key information about Americans who were in a position to influence United States politics and took steps to establish an unofficial line of communication between Russia and these Americans.”
The goal of Butina’s activities was to further Russia’s desire to expand its sphere of influence and relative strength compared to the United States and U.S. allies.
“The activities at issue in this case are part of Russia’s broader scheme to acquire information and establish relationships and communication channels that can be exploited to the Russian Federation’s benefit,” Liu wrote.
Had Butina been successful, prosecutors said, “the risks to the United States would have included harm to this country’s political processes, internal government dealings, and U.S. foreign policy interests.”
In essence, the activities Butina has admitted engaging in are not so different from the activities of other Russian operatives described in the Mueller report.
Intelligence Not Always A Cloak-And-Dagger Affair
The improvised effort to establish ties with the Trump campaign began early and gained urgency in the fall of 2016, extending through the disorganized transition that followed Trump’s unexpected victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Prosecutors noted that “acquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities.”
“Something as basic as the identification of people who have the ability to influence policy in a foreign power’s favor is extremely attractive to those powers. This identification could form the basis of other forms of intelligence operations, or targeting, in the future,” they said.
“Foreign agents, acting as ‘access agents,’ may simply arrange networking opportunities and introductions, particularly to those within their field. While completely innocuous in other contexts, access agents play a key role for foreign intelligence services in the conduct of influence operations.”
Even in this context, “[t]he conspiracy in which Butina engaged was ambitious: she — with the backing of a Russian government official — sought to establish unofficial lines of communication between Russia and Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics and to use those lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation,” prosecutors wrote.
Throughout the conspiracy’s existence, as explained more fully below, Butina was keenly aware that portions of her work were being reported to the wider Russian government beyond the Russian Official and that factions within the Russian government would be interested in the ‘valuable contacts’ she was developing.
Prosecutors said as early as March 2015, Butina actively promoted what she called the ‘Diplomacy Project,’ an effort to use connections she had made at the NRA to create this unofficial communication channel to the next U.S. presidential administration.
She pitched this proposal to her Russian handlers, who quickly informed her they would support it.
The following month, court documents said, Butina attended an NRA meeting and met several “influential members” of the Republican party.
She later attended Trump’s July 2015 campaign announcement in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, and wrote a report to her handler, Torshin, who in addition to being a former Russian parliament member, is a former deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank.
In that report, she described attending the announcement as “exciting” and said she’d been introduced to one of Trump’s three advisors for matters concerning international politics.
Five months later Butina invited unidentified “powerful members” of the NRA to Moscow as part of the conspiracy’s plan to establish the unofficial channel of communication.
At this point, the court documents make clear, Butina began to worry others realized how important the NRA’s support would be to the eventual Republican candidate, making it an especially important contact.
She specifically worried others “within the Russian government or a political group or activist” would muscle in on her contacts “cutting her and the Russian Official (Torshin) out of the loop,” the court documents say.
‘Innocent’ Events, Secret Aims
Butina also used seemingly innocuous events, such as U.S.-Russia “friendship dinners,” where wealthy and influential Americans discussed U.S.-Russia relations, to advance the conspiracy.
According to prosecutors, Butina used these dinners to cultivate lines of communication with individuals she believed would have the ear of the next U.S. presidential administration.
Butina wrote, in a document recovered from her computer, “that it was good that people on the list were affiliated with both major U.S. political parties, noting, ‘This fact is a kind of guarantee of not becoming dependent on the support of just one of the parties and exerting influence on foreign policy regardless of which party is in control of the US Congress or the White House,'” the court documents say.
“The special advantage of this proposal [U.S.-Russia Friendship Dinners] resides in the fact that the presence of bilateral interest will, on the one hand, cancel out the questions of American ill-wishers about ‘the Kremlin’s hand’ in the organization and in attempts at propaganda and, on the other hand, will make it possible to exert the speediest and most effective influence on the process of making decisions in the American establishment,” Butina wrote.
At one point Butina suggested Torshin give Trump the gift of a gold coin from the Russian Central Bank, saying it would symbolize that “relations between our countries are just as valuable as gold, the most valuable metal.”
Torshin allegedly agreed. However, neither he nor Butina ever managed to meet the president, something they hoped to do at NRA events.
Later, Butina sent Torshin a note with a project proposal entitled, “Establishing a dialogue with the team of the Newly-elected US President … a conference in Washington, DC.”
“Butina proposed to hold a conference on ways and means of building Russian-American relations under the President-Elect, noting that the ‘conference must be presented as a private initiative, not a government undertaking,'” the court documents say.
This time, however, Torshin rejected Butina’s proposal and the event did not occur.
Instead, Torshin reportedly directed Butina to include “certain individuals” within the Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, and she noted specifically in an entry on her computer that those individuals were “coming to establish a back channel of communication.”
“The Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast organized by Butina ultimately included approximately fifteen people, which is significantly more than attended in the years prior to 2017. The delegation attended a U.S.-Russia Friendship Dinner two days prior to the actual event,” prosecutors said.
According to a document written by Butina after the event, in the lead-up to the National Prayer Breakfast, she and Torshin were promised a private meeting with the President of the United States by one of the organizers of the event.
The promised meeting never materialized.
A Devoted Daughter of Russia
In a separate filing Friday night, Butina’s attorneys asked that their client be released from the prison where she’s spent the past nine months and immediately deport her back to Russia.
They portray her not as a spy, but as an earnest graduate student who got into trouble simply because she kept in touch with powerful associates back home.
They also note that since her arrest, Butina has cooperated with investigators, spoke at length with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, and even testified for eight hours before the Senate Intelligence Committee, while also providing them with “thousands of pages of documents.”
“Maria Butina is a devoted daughter, genuine idealist, and compassionate civil activist,” the 30-year-old’s attorneys wrote. “Nearly a year ago, she graduated with a master’s degree from American University with straight A’s and bright career prospects.
“Now, her world has collapsed because of a decision to help and discuss her amateur diplomacy efforts with a Russian official,” they said.
They went on to argue that Butina now “recognizes that her good ends were sought using unlawful means,” her attorneys said.
Butina’s attorneys also contended her relationship with Torshin has been misconstrued. While they acknowledge Butina attended a “presidential campaign announcement” and told Torshin about it, they claim the information imparted by their client was innocuous.
However, they do acknowledge that because of her relationship with Torshin, Butina was obligated to register as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, something she did not do.
“For this, she is remorseful,” Butina’s attorney said.
Because of his role as Butina’s handler, Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. in April 2018.
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