On April 25, 2019, Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison after she admitted to conspiring to act as a covert Russian agent. Butina will be deported to Russia after she is released from prison.
Maria Butina is fighting for the next year and a half of her life.
The Russian national has spent most of the last 12 months in jail in Alexandria, Virginia, after being arrested on July 16 and charged with acting as a covert agent of the Russian government. She drew media attention and law enforcement scrutiny by establishing herself as a minor star in the conservative firmament, bragging about her connections to Trumpworld and the Kremlin, and building close relationships with top NRA officials—even helping them travel to Moscow.
Is she a “genuine idealist,” just looking to loosen Russian gun laws and improve relations between Washington and Moscow, as her attorneys argue? Or is she a national security threat, a vector for Russian influence, and an archetype of the Kremlin’s skill at using America’s civil society to shape its politics, as the Justice Department’s chosen expert witness on the case says in testimony they want the judge to weigh?
That’s the question Judge Tanya S. Chutkan will face when deciding whether Butina should serve another 18 months in prison, as federal prosecutors have requested, or be sentenced to time-served and then shipped back to Russia, as she asks.
A spate of recent court filings has brought a final battle about Butina into the public view. The D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office, which is handling the case, set the stage on Friday with a memo asking Chutkan to sentence her to an additional 18 months in prison. Attached to its memo was a statement from Robert Anderson, the former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. Anderson gave a stark view of Butina’s activity in the U.S., arguing that she worked to find Americans who could provide intelligence to the Russian government in the future. According to Anderson, Butina may have passed their details to the Kremlin’s spy services so an experienced agent could swoop in and pick up where she left off. The Kremlin, he argued, “will be able to use this information for years to come in their efforts to spot and assess Americans who may be susceptible to recruitment as foreign intelligence assets.”
Then he continued:
She focused specifically on Americans with political influence and Americans who had access, or were expected to acquire access, to the incoming presidential administration. Her ability to gain meaningful access to these powerful individuals would be incredibly valuable to the Russian government. Butina compiled information about these individuals in reports that were sent back to a high-ranking Russian government official. Consistent with a spot-and-assess operation, her reports did not focus on mere biographical details. Rather, she identified the political importance of those individuals upon whom she was reporting. Such information is the essence of a spot-and-assess report.
Butina’s lawyers do not want the judge to consider Anderson’s view when deciding her sentence. They argued, in a court filing, that the late notice of his view—“in the metaphorical bottom of the ninth inning”—violated her due process rights, and that it could take months and great expense to find another expert witness to rebut his arguments.
“This is, by definition, a sandbag tactic,” her lawyers wrote.
Butina’s case has presented problems for DOJ. The prosecutors working on the case claimed she offered to have sex with conservative movement leaders in exchange for their help finding her work. The allegation drew international headlines, unsurprisingly. But the prosecutors ultimately produced no evidence to substantiate it, and earned themselves a reprimand from the judge. Last December, they settled with Butina on a plea deal: She would cop to one count of conspiracy to violate a statute that prosecutors view as “espionage-lite.” In the months since then, she cooperated extensively with the department, per the court filings, sitting for numerous meetings to discuss matters that investigators were interested in. Despite that cooperation, she asked for a prompt deportation to Russia after finishing her sentence––telling the court she does not expect torture or persecution there.
Anderson’s testimony stands in sharp contrast to the host of character endorsements Butina’s lawyers entered. The filing lays out a bio of the 30-year-old, from her childhood in Siberia to her move to Moscow to her ascent in the gun rights space and arrival in America, amplified by letters from her parents, grandmother, and sister.
A college friend weighed in, as did George O’Neil, the Rockefeller heir who put on Russian-American friendship dinners with Butina and supported some of her pursuits in the U.S. O’Neil suggested she could still play a role in future relations between the two countries.
“After this difficult time ends, I expect with the spiritual strength gained from this painful and unhappy episode in her life, she can continue working to enable peaceful answers to some of our vexing international problems,” he wrote.
The contrast with the government couldn’t be sharper—and, in fact, the DOJ attorneys said Butina claimed to have had a say in the Trump administration’s decision about Secretary of State. According to the filing, Butina sent the name of an American to Alexander Torshin (then an official in Russia’s powerful central bank) and asked for “the input of the Russian government.”
“Our opinion will be taken into consideration,” she said, according to the filing.
Butina also got to know an American who actually had significant visibility into the administration’s Russia contacts. Though the DOJ did not highlight the relationship in its sentencing papers, Butina knew Dimitri Simes, the head of the Central for the National Interest think tank–a well-connected, Russian-born denizen of K Street who took a significant role in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian influence efforts. Mueller provided significant new detail on Simes’ work with Jared Kushner to establish relationships with Russian government officials. Trumpworld representatives even checked with Simes to make sure they were communicating with the correct Russians, according to Mueller’s report.
Butina also had significant dealings with the think tank. She wrote an article for its magazine arguing that U.S.-Russia relations could flourish under a Republican administration. She also weighed in on a financial challenge facing its board chairman emeritus, billionaire Hank Greenberg; Greenberg owned a significant portion of a bank in Russia which was facing grave financial woes. Butina learned about the situation and advised that Greenberg inject more cash into the bank, as The Daily Beast reported. Simes, in turn, reached out to Torshin multiple times regarding Greenberg’s financial situation, according to private communications The Daily Beast reviewed.
“Simes is pressuring me about the interests of Greenberg,” Torshin wrote to Butina. “I really don't like that. Who knows what they will think in the Central Bank. Today I made it very clear that I am not their helper for these affairs in the Central Bank. I ask that you don't speak with anyone about banking in the Russian Federation. They may try to get you involved as well.”
Despite that friction, Simes’ star in Trumpland rose. The think tank hosted Trump’s first big—and Putin-friendly—foreign policy speech. It’s a speech that, according to Mueller, Simes had a hand in crafting.
In the years since then, the characters involved on that stage have found wildly different fates. Butina was arrested, and is now facing the judge who will decide how long she must stay there. Simes, meanwhile, is keeping a low profile. And Kushner is in the White House, telling people that the Russia investigations, not Moscow’s interference, was the real danger to America.