The Maria Butina Case Is Not About Spying

by | Dec 15, 2018


Two things stand out in this week’s plea deal of Maria Butina, the Russian citizen branded by US media as an “accused spy.” The description of her offense by federal prosecutors doesn’t mention any link to Russian intelligence services and the plea agreement says she’s willing to cooperate with the US authorities despite knowing she’ll almost certainly be deported to Russia.

These peculiarities make Butina’s a strange case.

The 30-year-old gun-rights activist and former graduate student at American University networked so inventively and tirelessly in Washington that she aroused the suspicion of US counterintelligence and was arrested in July. She found herself in the media spotlight as an unlikely femme fatale until prosecutors walked back one of the original accusations — that she’d been willing to trade sex for getting ahead in her influence operation.

After spending five months in jail, Butina admitted having served as an agent of the Russian government without duly notifying the US attorney general. That summoned memories of 10 people accused of being Russian sleeper agents in the US in 2010, including Anna Chapman, who later became a minor celebrity in Russia, who pleaded guilty to the same offense. But the US government’s complaint against that group stated unequivocally that they had been sent to the US to lie in wait until the Russian foreign intelligence service decided to use them.

No such accusation is being made in Butina’s case. She’s only admitted that she’d been working in the US at the behest of Alexander Torshin, who resigned as deputy governor of the Russian central bank last month, and that she knew that he was coordinating his instructions for her with the Russian foreign ministry.

The Chapman group didn’t plead guilty in exchange for cooperating with US authorities; that would have made the intelligence assets traitors to Russia, the country to which they were deported immediately after sentencing. Instead, they were swapped for four people Russia had accused of working for Western intelligence services in Russia, including the victim of a botched poisoning in the U.K. this year, Sergey Skripal.

Butina, by contrast, promised to cooperate and will remain behind bars answering questions until at least mid-February, when the date of her sentencing may be determined in the next court hearing. It would have been hard for a Russian spy to agree to such terms knowing she’d be sent home: There, she’d almost certainly face prosecution for spilling the beans, or worse.

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