Russia’s state-TV Channel One program, hosted by Andrey Malakhov, has aired a revealing special about Maria Butina, including interviews with her parents, relatives, and friends.
Butina recently pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy against the United States, having sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans who possess political power and influence. She admitted to acting under the direction of a Russian official, Alexander Torshin. She faces a maximum of five years in prison, but is likely to receive zero to six months based on her plea agreement.
Russian state television and government officials appear to be deeply concerned about the information Butina has provided to U.S. authorities. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, claimed erroneously that Butina is facing 15 years in prison and has been subjected to medieval torture while in U.S. custody.
Discounting Butina’s confession, Zakharova told Russian state television Rossiya-1: “Under these conditions, you can make anyone admit to anything. You will admit that you’re a Japanese spy, a Chinese spy, or a medieval witch that tried to stir up a storm in Washington.”
In point of fact, Russian state media seems to be preparing the public for upcoming revelations of a sexual nature, openly comparing Maria Butina with Anna Chapman, who was arrested along with nine other agents in 2010, all of whom were exchanged for four spies held by Moscow. (Among them was Sergei Skripal, subsequently the object of an alleged Russian assassination attempt.)
The thrust of the Russian coverage seems to be that Butina fancied herself a spy and seductress without actually being one, but her parents’ evasive answers were not much help building that case.
Channel One host Malakhov asked Maria Butina’s father about his daughter’s means of support in America. Valery Butin reluctantly admitted: “She had influential acquaintances who recognized her abilities and were helping her financially.” Butin deflected additional questions about the identities of his daughter’s “influential” supporters, adding: “Someone snitched on her.”
Malakhov followed up with an unconventional theory about Butina’s attempted infiltration of the GOP: “What if her intentions were purely sexual? Couldn’t that be the case? Some people like to sleep with famous athletes and some with politicians. She came there and wanted to meet them, that’s all.”
Maria Butina’s former friends and colleagues provided the Russian state-TV program with photos from her past that revealed a mousy brown mullet and frumpy attire before her redheaded makeover and glamorous photo-sessions with various weapons.
The admitted agent of influence drastically changed her appearance in the run-up to her exploits in the United States, leading to the impression that she was being groomed a little like the protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Red Sparrow.
A cursory look into Butina’s room in her parents’ apartment suggests a family of modest means, raising questions about whether anonymous benefactors provided the funding for the seven furniture stores she owned prior to her American travels. Responding to questions about the source of funds for his daughter’s entrepreneurial ventures, Butina’s father said, “She is a skilled organizer.”
Maria Butina’s former colleague at the Public Chamber Council of Altai Krai, Pavel Tulin, said he wasn’t surprised by her arrest. Tulin speculated that prior to her apprehension, Butina may have been recorded bragging about being a super-agent of the Russian intelligence agencies (SVR, GRU/GU or the FSB), whether or not that was truly the case. “Now she’s paying the price for whatever she blabbed about,” he added.
GOP operative Paul Erickson, who was used by Maria Butina as a conduit for her influence operations, reportedly pondered in a handwritten note: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?”
Valery Butin showed off the high marks his daughter received during her American studies, revealing that some of the courses included International Affairs, International Politics, Cybersecurity, Terrorism, and Espionage.
Influential individuals on both sides of the ocean are rightfully concerned by Butina’s potential revelations about the knowledge she put into practice during her dealings with the GOP, the National Rifle Association, and others.
“We are at war,” sums up Russian MP Andrey Svintsov. He concludes: “We may not be using conventional weapons, but we are using intellectual and info-weapons.”
As one such tool of Russia’s hybrid warfare against the West, Maria Butina still has the potential to cause explosive fallout on both sides of the Atlantic.