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High-level Russian spy or hapless collateral damage? The curious case of Maria Butina

High-level Russian spy or hapless collateral damage? The curious case of Maria Butina
Maria Butina speaks to a crowd in Moscow in 2013. (Associated Press)

Even after she pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to help the Russian government exert influence over American politicians and operatives, the question remains open whether the case against Maria Butina is the stuff of a James Bond script or just the story of a naive Russian grad student.

Either way, the 30-year-old gun rights enthusiast sitting in a federal cell in Virginia has become an intriguing character in the investigation into Russian efforts to sway American politics. She is the first Russian national to be convicted for conspiracy around the 2016 election, and her willingness to cooperate with prosecutors has touched off all manner of speculation about where it will lead.

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Butina’s is a curious case. The entrepreneurial Russian agent, who was pursuing a graduate degree at American University in Washington, ran a side business that prosecutors have characterized as espionage.

She enlisted her American boyfriend, identified in court papers as “U.S. Person 1” — but known to be Paul Erickson, 56, a longtime Republican operative — in her scheme to help Russia curry favor with the U.S. government by building back-channel relationships. She took her instructions from a high-level Russian official and drew up an extensive plan for helping Russia infiltrate the American political system, in part by working through the National Rifle Assn.

“It shows another dimension in the overall Russian effort to infiltrate the American political system and influence it,” said David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security and a cofounder of the Culper Partners consulting firm. “It's a demonstration of the diversity of their efforts.”

But the master plan some interpret as sensational has caused others to shrug their shoulders. The rules are blurry in the world of influence peddling, and routine lobbying and networking can quickly cross the line into a place where prosecutors have a criminal case, particularly when the players involved are Russian.

By the time Butina pleaded guilty, prosecutors had backed off some of the most sensational charges they had previously leveled against her. They had recanted their claim that she offered to trade sex for help infiltrating the American political system, acknowledging that they misinterpreted some text messages in which Butina joked with a friend. They abandoned claims that Butina was in contact with Russian intelligence agencies and that the relationship with Erickson was one of convenience as part of her plot to build her network of influential American politicos.

Butina ultimately pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. After already serving five months in jail, she could be released as soon as her sentencing hearing in February. She is likely to be deported upon release, according to her plea deal.

The Butina prosecution, which is being handled by the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, is separate from the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller is focused on ties between President Trump's team and Russians who interfered in the presidential election. The special counsel has charged more than two dozen Russians with hacking Democratic Party emails and spreading misinformation on social media as part of a covert, Kremlin-backed campaign.

Butina has no known connections to Trump, other than a photograph with his son, Donald Trump Jr., which she got at an NRA convention, and a question she once asked the future president at a public forum.

But the young Russian aggressively sought connections with other prominent Republicans — efforts that brought her under the FBI’s scrutiny as soon as the 2016 presidential campaign got underway. Amassing evidence was not difficult. Butina posted it on social media herself. There she was in a photo with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who she told her Russian handler would probably be the next president of the United States. There she was again in the photo with Trump’s son.

Butina predicted Republicans would retake the White House, and she saw the NRA as the place to build inroads with the GOP. She wasn’t wrong about that — the gun lobby spent tens of millions on behalf of Republican candidates. Butina and her Russian handler, a figure prosecutors label in court papers as “Russian Official” but who has been identified as Alexander Torshin, an official in Russia’s central bank, persuaded members of the gun rights group to visit Moscow in 2015. During that visit, according to court documents, the Americans met with high-level officials in Moscow.

Despite the lack of connections between Butina and the president, the details in her indictment and plea are obvious fodder for investigators as Democrats prepare to take over the House, with their inquiry into possible collusion between Republicans and Russia being a top priority.

“The guilty plea of Russian operative Maria Butina today raises the questions of what did @NRA officials know and when did they know it?” Rep.Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The plea also raises the issue of what GOP party members or electeds may have known. Oh, and in January, House Democrats control subpoena power.”

Butina appears to have been ensnared in a bigger investigation focused on Torshin, who has been attending NRA conventions since 2011. Prosecutors have signaled one of their next targets is Erickson, who court papers suggest was deeply involved in trying to help Torshin win favor with influential Republicans.

Democrats already had Erickson in their sights, after an email surfaced last year in which he had tried to broker a pre-2016 election meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That meeting never happened.

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A linchpin of the case against Butina, meanwhile, is a document Erickson helped her draft for her Russian handler titled “Description of Diplomacy Project.” In it, Butina downplayed the possibility of influencing U.S. foreign policy toward Russia through official channels, criticizing “government unwillingness to compromise,” prosecutors wrote in their court filing. “As an alternative, Butina suggested that Russia could use unofficial channels to the same end.”

She boasted that she had already “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration.” Erickson, according to the court papers, provided Butina “with information about prominent U.S. political figures,” and after she persuaded some “powerful members” of the NRA to come to Moscow, Erickson provided Butina “his assessment on their degree of political influence in the United States.”

After the visit, Butina sent a note to Torshin about the NRA delegation, advising: “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.” Prosecutors did not provide any evidence of follow-through on the cryptic advice, or identify who exactly the Russians had intended to put pressure on and how.

Butina also leaned on Erickson for help targeting guests to invite to “friendship dinners” thrown “to cultivate lines of communication with individuals she believed would have the ear of the next U.S. presidential administration,” according to prosecutors. And prosecutors accuse Erickson of helping Butina and Torshin scheme to send a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington for the purpose of building back channels for Russian communication with Americans who can influence U.S. policy.

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The court filing quotes an email from Erickson to an unnamed person promising that reaction to the delegation in America would be communicated directly to Putin.

Erickson’s lawyer has already received a “target letter” from prosecutors, warning him that they are mulling charges that he secretly acted as an agent for a foreign government, according to a report in the Daily Beast. Erickson’s lawyer told the outlet that his client “has never done anything to hurt our country and never would.”

Time will tell if the U.S. attorney’s office has a case against Erickson. If it does, Butina could take on yet another identity — star witness for the prosecution.

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