For four years, a Russian accused of being a covert agent pursued a brazen effort to infiltrate conservative circles and influence powerful Republicans while she secretly was in contact with Russian intelligence operatives, a senior Russian official and a billionaire oligarch close to the Kremlin whom she called her “funder,” federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The woman, Mariia Butina, carried out her campaign through a series of deceptions that began in 2014, if not earlier, prosecutors said. She lied to obtain a student visa to pursue graduate work at American University in 2016. Apparently hoping for a work visa that would grant her a longer stay, she offered one American sex in exchange for a job. She moved in with a Republican political operative nearly twice her age, describing him as her boyfriend. But she privately expressed “disdain” for him and had him do her homework, prosecutors said.
In a dramatic two-hour hearing in US District Court in Washington, prosecutors said that Butina, who is charged with conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government, was the point person in a calculated, long-term campaign intended to steer high-level politicians toward Moscow's objectives. Though prosecutors did not name any party or politician, Butina's efforts were clearly aimed at Republican leaders, especially those with White House aspirations in 2016, including Donald Trump.
She "should be considered on a par with other covert Russian agents," prosecutors said in a memo. Overall, they described what appears to be another arm of the Russian government's attempts to influence or gain information about the US political process. While Russian military intelligence officers were hacking into the computers and email accounts of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organisations, Butina was building connections on the Republican side under the direction of an official believed to be Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of the Russian central bank, who has established ties to Russian security services, according to the court filings.
Secretly, she and others laid the groundwork for a $125,000 operation to connect with Republican leaders through a network of contacts with the National Rifle Association and conservative religious groups, including the organisers of the National Prayer Breakfast, the prosecutors said. "The defendant's covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international co-ordination and preparation," they said.
Magistrate Judge Deborah A Robinson of US District Court denied bail for Butina, accepting prosecutors' argument that she was at high risk to flee the country. Prosecutors sought criminal charges after agents reported over the weekend that she was moving money out of the country, had her boxes packed, looked into renting a moving truck and had terminated her apartment lease. Robinson noted that Butina could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Although she has not been charged with espionage, prosecutors said Butina kept in touch with Russian intelligence operatives. In March, she had dinner with a Russian diplomat described by prosecutors as a suspected Russian intelligence officer. He left the United States two weeks later, around the time a dozen Russian intelligence officers were expelled from the country over the poisoning of a British informant.
Her contact list included an email account associated with the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency that is the main successor to the Soviet KGB, and FBI agents who searched her apartment found a handwritten note that read, "How to respond to FSB offer of employment?" She was also photographed with the former ambassador at the Russian Embassy in Washington.
She could easily slip out of the reach of the Justice Department merely by getting into an embassy car, said Erik M Kenerson, an assistant US attorney. Russia does not extradite its citizens for prosecution in the United States. Butina's defence lawyer, Robert N Driscoll, tried to distance his client from Moscow's interference in the 2016 election. He stressed that Butina was not indicted by the special counsel investigating Russia's meddling, Robert Mueller, and should not be lumped with more than two dozen Russians charged with infiltrating the computers of Democratic organisations or illegally using social media to try to influence the election.
"Miss Butina is not a proxy for any of the serious or substantial issues" involving relations between the United States and Russia, Driscoll said. She "has nothing to do with Mueller."
In Moscow, Russian government officials said that Butina, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, was a pawn in a much bigger geopolitical game. "You get the sense that someone grabbed a watch and a calculator to determine when the decision on Mariia Butina's arrest should be adopted," Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing. The charges against her were "deliberately timed," she said, to undermine the results of Monday's summit meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The hearing also revealed a wider federal investigation into her activities than was previously known. Driscoll disclosed that investigators for the Federal Election Commission had questioned Butina about "whether certain donations had been made to a political campaign." Prosecutors revealed that the Republican political operative from South Dakota who created a company with her in 2016 was the subject of a fraud investigation. Unidentified in the indictment, he is believed to be Paul Erickson (56) whom Butina has described as her boyfriend.
FBI agents have been surveilling Butina, who graduated in May with a master's degree in international relations, for the past year. In a search of her apartment near American University in Washington's Tenleytown neighbourhood, FBI agents uncovered a trail of messages between Butina and Torshin, who, like Butina, worked to build contact with NRA officials. After she was featured in several news articles, Torshin likened her to Anna Chapman, a Russian intelligence agent who was arrested in the United States in 2010, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as a Russian agent, and was deported to Russia as part of a swap for American prisoners.
“Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin wrote. In the weeks before the election, the two agreed she should keep a low profile, with Butina referring to herself as being “underground.” But after Butina sent Torshin a photograph of herself near the US Capitol on the day Trump was inaugurated, he exclaimed: “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!” She responded: “Good teachers!”
Kenerson argued, “This is not the language of someone here just to study at American University.” For the first time, prosecutors also linked Butina to an unnamed wealthy Russian oligarch who they said has deep ties to the Kremlin’s presidential administration and often travels to the United States. Butina repeatedly referred to the businessman as her “funder,” they said. Before her first trip to the United States in late 2014, she met with him and communicated with another rich Russian businessman by text about her travel budget, according to court papers.
According to the prosecutors, the oligarch told Butina: “I want you to go work in the United States, not go on a tourist trip.” Later, worried that her frequent trips on short-term visas would attract too much attention, Butina schemed about how she could obtain a work visa, they said, offering sex in exchange for a job at an unidentified “special interest organisation.”
Although her lawyer said Butina maintained a 4.0 average at American University, prosecutors described her graduate studies as her “cover.” She relied on Erickson to help her complete exams and assignments, they said. Although he is her closest tie to the United States, “she appears to treat that relationship as simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” the government’s memo said. - New York Times Service