Maria Butina, the Russian national who is serving 18 months for conspiring to serve as a foreign agent, has given a jailhouse interview in which she admitted she set up “unofficial communication” with U.S. contacts but insisted that she was “absolutely not” a spy.
In a wide-ranging phone interview with NPR from a detention center outside Washington, D.C., Butina said she was the victim of a conspiracy to blame her. She admitted to NPR that by working alongside Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker who was sanctioned for trying to meddle in U.S. elections, she looked suspicious but she remained adamant and said that he did not control her.
The 30-year-old is accused of attempting to infiltrate conservative political groups close to the Trump campaign including the National Rifle Association. She had previously admitted that her notes would be “valuable” to Russia, but denies being sent to the United States to collect them. Instead, she told NPR she was flattered that the Russians took her seriously.
“I said that I would be honored because, well, I am a young woman and there you have people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider my notes, my analysis, as valuable,” Butina said. “It was very pleasant for me. So of course I said, ‘Of course, yes.’”
But she went on to clarify that she did not gather information on the NRA and others for the Russian government. Instead, she saw herself as something of a peace-maker. “I believe that we should have peace between the two countries,” she said. “That’s exactly the point that I was addressing. I was building unofficial communication of civil diplomacy.”
She says she did not know that she was supposed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, after it was clear the Russians wanted to see her notes.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate to say that this was all one grand giant plan and I’m a part of some grand giant plan,” she told NPR. “There is no proof of that. And I have no knowledge that there is a certain plan.”
She told the public broadcaster that the fact that she was not mentioned in the redacted version of the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller proved her innocence.
The Justice Department instead believes she was part of an operation to “spot and assess,” which they say is as integral to espionage as actually spying.
“Acquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities,” the DOJ wrote in her sentencing brief. “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.”
Butina, who will be deported back to Russia upon her release from prison, says she is “embarrassed that instead of creating peace by not registering, I created discord.”
She said she has no qualms about facing scrutiny once she goes because people “know as a matter of fact that I am not a spy nor do I have any secret information,” she said. “I don’t think I have any problems or I could have any concerns about my safety.”
In fact, she says she looks forward to going home. “I never hide my love to my motherland, neither to this country,” she said. “I love both countries, and I was building peace.”