Maria Butina claimed she was a Russian patriot who loved her country, a peacemaker who strongly believed in the right to bear arms, and was grateful for the educational opportunities provided to her by her other love, America.
The U.S. Justice Department saw it differently. In April, Butina, 31, became the only Russian convicted in connection with the investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Prosecutors said she worked on the behalf of the Kremlin to infiltrate the National Rifle Assn. and build a network of influential Republicans.
On Saturday, Butina will return to Moscow, one day after being released from a Florida prison and deported back to Russia. She served 15 months of her 18-month sentence.
Just how the Kremlin will spin the account of the Russian woman who cooperated with the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference remains unclear.
If the rhetoric coming out of Russia’s Foreign Ministry since her arrest last year is any indication, she will be heralded as a hero and a victim of political oppression in the U.S.
Shortly after Butina’s arrest in July 2018, the Foreign Ministry started a social media campaign to decry the U.S. case against the Russian national. The ministry changed its social media profile to Butina’s face and created the hashtag #freeMariaButina.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the ministry, called Butina a “prisoner of conscience,” and said she had been subjected to “physical and psychological experiments” in prison.
Last week, when it became known that Butina would be released early for good behavior, Zakharova told the state-owned RIA Novosti news outlet that “not every adult man would be able to take what Butina has lived through in the American prison.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously decried Butina’s arrest and said she was not working on orders from Russian security agents. On Friday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin leader had no plans to meet Butina after her return to Russia.
“Her importance to the Kremlin is precisely as a symbol,” said Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
“She’s not a spy. Even under the terms in which she pleaded guilty, that is not the same as espionage,” he said. “That matters when it comes to how the Russian government regards her.”
The Kremlin sees Butina’s case as a symbol of what Russia often describes as America’s hypocrisy, he said. Moscow believes Washington blames the Kremlin for interference while at the same time meddling in Russian politics, Galeotti said.
“Yet in this case, the Kremlin claims an innocent Russian woman, who happened to be lobbying or engaged or connected to the wrong side, gets hounded, prosecuted and then expelled,” Galeotti said.
For clues to her own future, Butina could look to how the Kremlin received Anna Chapman, a Russian foreign intelligence agent who was expelled from the U.S. in 2010 after pleading guilty to conspiracy.
“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Butina’s Kremlin contact wrote in private messages he sent her from Russia while she was in Washington, according to U.S. court papers.
Like Butina, Chapman was portrayed in the international media as a bombshell redhead sent to the U.S. to conduct the Kremlin’s clandestine operations. In reality, the two women’s footprints in the alleged spycraft differ greatly.
Butina was arrested July 15, 2018, in Washington and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation without registration. Under U.S. law, persons of any nationality working on behalf of a foreign country in America must register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice.
In December, Butina pleaded guilty to having failed to register herself but insisted that she was not a spy.
Investigators focused on her activities in the U.S. tell a different story. U.S. prosecutors said Butina and her Russian government handler, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and a deputy governor for Russia’s Central Bank, were using the NRA to gain access to American conservative organizations on behalf of the Kremlin to promote Russian political interests around the 2016 election. The NRA has consistently been the biggest donor in U.S. political campaigns, and NRA officials were apparently enamored of the idea of a charismatic gun activist from Russia, which has significantly stiffer gun regulations than the United States.
(Torshin helped funnel money to Butina in the U.S. to support her life and activities there. Their communications over several years became part of the legal case against her.)
By contrast, Chapman, 37, was arrested as part of a ring of spies who didn’t seem to have as much impact as Butina.
The Kremlin welcomed Chapman, who was an agent of Russian intelligence service, and provided a soft landing in Moscow.
Since her release, Chapman has been a model, a leader of a government-backed youth council, the host of a television show and more recently, an Instagram influencer who posts fashion photos and has a fondness for President Trump.
Butina could pursue a political career, said George Bovt, a Russian political scientist, in a commentary for a Russian news outlet.
“In any case, abandoning her now, a victim of American justice or even trumped-up charges, would be unfair,” Bovt wrote.
On Friday, just as her release was announced, at least one concrete job offer was in the works for Butina from Alexander Malkevich, president of the National Values Protection Fund, which was established in April and has contributed to Butina’s legal case in the U.S.
Malkevich is on the U.S. sanctions list because of his ties to the infamous St. Petersburg troll factory that U.S. investigators concluded played a critical role in developing bots and fake accounts that interfered in the 2016 election. Malkevich also founded the USA Really conspiracy website, which he said would counter American mainstream media’s coverage of Russia.
His National Values Protection Fund’s goal is to promote the “Russian ideology of good” in Europe and North America, he said.
Butina would be an ideal member of his team in the fight for human rights, Malkevich said in an interview Friday.
“I believe she can lead the international direction of the struggle for human rights,” he said