Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to act on behalf of the Russian government as a clandestine foreign agent in the United States, was released Friday into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Eagerly anticipating Butina’s impending liberation, Russian state media outlets expected to live-stream her release, but U.S. authorities had other plans. Having traveled to the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution from Atlanta, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, Russian state TV stringers were stranded for hours filming traffic, building exits and geese on the lawn. Meanwhile, Butina was quietly whisked out of the facility and transferred to the custody of ICE for a speedy deportation back to Russia.
During her flight from Miami to Moscow, the crew of Aeroflot transferred Butina from an economy seat at the back of the plane to business-class. Someone offered a traditional Russian gingerbread cookie (pryanik) to sugarcoat Maria’s bitter-sweet voyage. “Once this plane takes off, it’s all over,” Butina remarked. Aboard the plane, the Russian state media blitz was already underway. RT reporters booked seats on the same flight, documenting Butina’s return to Russia. “I would not make it without my people, citizens of my country," Butina told the Russian state media outlet, Sputnik.
Appearing on 60 Minutes—the most popular news talk show in Russia—the correspondent of Russia’s state-TV channel Rossiya-24 Valentin Bogdanov pointed out that the Western media no longer dares to call Butina a spy. “They’re being careful,” Bogdanov said, speculating that media outlets are afraid of being sued for using the wrong language. In the Kremlin-controlled Russian media, Butina is being described mainly in glowing terms.
The Motherland welcomed Butina with a mighty bear hug. The host of 60 Minutes, Evgeny Popov, told The Daily Beast: “She is a hero! You are not.” He could not specify the nature of Butina’s alleged heroic deeds but Popov predicted that Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko would soon follow suit and also be released from U.S. custody. Bout is an international arms dealer, convicted of conspiring to sell weapons to a foreign terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Yaroshenko was sentenced to 20 years for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
During Friday’s show, Popov exclaimed: “Good news from the United States, which rarely happens! Nonetheless, our compatriot Maria Butina is being released early. Motherland awaits!” Popov’s wife and co-host of 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, claimed that Butina’s confessions and her guilty plea should be disregarded, since they were allegedly extracted by “torture” in U.S. custody. Popov lamented: “This person is just a victim! A political prisoner! A victim of the elections! A victim of attacks against Trump and imaginary Russian interference.” Skabeeva added: “They suddenly let her go, because the scandal with election interference has ended.”
Russian government officials took credit for Butina’s early release. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “We’re glad that finally, after very long delays, the American justice system made the decision that we sought.” In reality, Butina was simply released and deported after serving her term.
Working at the direction of a Russian government official, Alexander Torshin, Butina infiltrated Republican political circles and the National Rifle Association around the time of the 2016 election in order to promote Russian interests. In September of 2019, an investigation by Senate Democrats determined that the NRA has acted as a “foreign asset” in providing Russian officials access to US political organizations.
In court documents, prosecutors argued that Butina’s efforts had the hallmarks of a Russian espionage operation, suggesting that she was acting as a "spotter" by identifying people who have the ability to influence policy in Russia’s favor, as a set of targets Russian spies could potentially cultivate. Investigators from special counsel Robert Mueller's team questioned Butina on only one occasion for approximately an hour. Her name was left out of the final version of the Special Counsel’s redacted report. Many questions about the full scope of Maria Butina’s activities in the United States remain unanswered.
Russian government officials have sought to minimize Butina’s role—but so do some of the Republicans. Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie complained that Maria Butina “served a ridiculously long sentence essentially for not filing the right paperwork.” Massie blamed “the rampant Russophobia” for the criminal prosecution of a convicted Russian agent. The Russian media immediately re-published and broadcast Massie’s commentary, since it’s in perfect alignment with the version of events supported by the Kremlin. In August, Massie also defended Butina and claimed that James Comey and Peter Strzok, formerly of the FBI, should be imprisoned instead of her.
For her part, Butina started to condemn U.S. authorities even from prison, having described her conviction and imprisonment as a “terrible shame” upon the American justice system. Butina’s attorneys claimed that Attorney General William Barr’s newly announced criminal inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation would include fact-finding in Butina’s case as well.
During her interviews on the plane to Moscow, Butina said: “I would have preferred to be famous for some other reason, but since this is the way it happened—I believe that the world has the right to know the truth about it. I believe that justice will be restored... I’m ready to continue this fight.” Butina told Russian state media that the American rule of law is “just an illusion.” She also threatened to commence an unspecified legal action to “restore her reputation.”
Arriving to Moscow Saturday morning, Maria Butina was greeted with smiles and flowers by Russian government officials—including Russia’s Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, along with family members, well-wishers and hordes of reporters. Butina said, “I would like to thank the Russian Foreign Ministry and every diplomat who fought hard for me... I did not give up because I knew I could not do that... As I said in one of my videos: the Russians never give up.”
There is little doubt that Maria Butina will be actively used by Russian state media for anti-American propaganda. Butina also has other plans. In April, she told CNN that she might start tutoring Russian students who want to study in America.