MOSCOW - For some she was the spy who wasn’t - just an eager Russian gun-rights enthusiast keen to improve relations between Russia and America, who was turned into a scapegoat by vengeful U.S. counterintelligence agencies.
For others, Maria Butina is a clandestine Russian agent, a real-life Red Sparrow, with flame-colored hair to match, who infiltrated conservative circles in the U.S., including the National Rifle Association, to establish ‘back channel’ communications with political figures and aspiring politicians with the goal of influencing them.
However, when she arrived home at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport to be greeted by her father and a melee of reporters, the 30-year-old shed no new light on the circumstances that led to her getting into trouble with U.S. authorities. She said she felt “well” and was happy “to return home.” She was greeted by people offering her flowers.
She has continued to maintain her overall innocence, despite having pled guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent. On board an Aeroflot flight from Miami, reporters lined up to interview her even before landing. She told them: “Well guys, almost home. Only a little bit left, only several hours. Thank you for your support. I’m waiting for the plane to land. I’ll be in my homeland."
She added her imprisonment had been a “very painful and lengthy experience.” On her arrival she again thanked Russians for their support. “I didn’t give up simply because I knew that I could not do that,” she said.
After hugging her father, Butina added:"It was especially frightening when I was sitting in prison and seeing how they chose the scariest photos of me to air on the news. And they made shows on TV about it. I couldn’t even turn it off. I was forced to watch that. And the guards laughed and watched along. It was very hard to bear."
Later Butina told state-run media: "I pleaded guilty to non-registration as a foreign agent. (I'm) a person who did not do anything illegal, did not take any money, there were no victims, there wasn't even a person to conspire with."
She added: "Was there pressure on me? Absolutely. Of course. Ten days before I signed all the indictments, I was again put in a solitary confinement cell. This is intentional, this is done to break you as a person."
Released from Tallahassee’s Federal Correction Institution Friday after having served more than 15 months behind bars, Butina pled guilty in December to one count of conspiring to engage in unregistered lobbying on behalf of a foreign power. In the Russian capital awaiting her midday Saturday arrival was her father, Valeriy Butin, a retired 55-year-old manufacturing engineer, who had dubbed the charges against her in the past as “psychopathic and a witch-hunt.”
She has said she plans to go home to Barnaul, a beaten-down city in Siberia, once a manufacturing center for tanks, ammunition and tractors, but now one with little future.
There were no high-profile Kremlin dignitaries planning to be present at the airport. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to meet with Butina as he did subsequently with Anna Chapman, the Russian agent who was part of a 2010 spy swap. Chapman was feted on her return and turned into a celebrity with her own television show.
That may suit Butina. In an interview with CNN this year she appeared to distance herself from Chapman, sniffing she had no intention of following in Chapman’s footsteps, maintaining curtly, “I'm not a circus bear.”
There was a time though that she liked the comparison with Chapman -- “You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Butina’s Kremlin contact wrote in an email he sent her from Russia while she was working in Washington, according to U.S. court papers.
Despite their absence at the airport, Kremlin officials lauded Butina. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, described Butina as 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 state-owned RIA Novosti that “not every adult man would be able to take what Butina has lived through in the American prison.”
Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison after having been arrested on July 15, 2018. FBI agents say she was a small cog in a much larger Russian influence campaign. Her infiltration though was apparently separate from the 2016 Russian election-meddling detailed in former special counsel Robert Mueller's recent report.
But her Washington activity coincided with the broader Moscow-directed effort to covertly shape the last U.S. presidential election. Her trial judge noted Butina was transmitting political reports back to Moscow.
Putin criticized the prosecution of Butina labeling it “arbitrary.” He said in April, “It’s not clear what she was convicted of or what crime she committed. I think it is a prime example of ‘saving face.’ They arrested her and put the girl in jail.”
She has her defenders in the U.S. as well, including Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman from Kentucky.
He tweeted Friday: “She served a ridiculously long sentence essentially for not filing the right paperwork. But now she is free. Sadly, she was jailed to satiate the rampant Russophobia in the US these days. We are better than this.”
James Bamford, author of best-selling books on U.S. intelligence agencies, profiled her for the New Republic magazine and argued Butina was “simply an idealistic young Russian” hoping to contribute to a better understanding between Russia and America. She told Bamford: “I thought it would be a good opportunity to do what I could, as an unpaid private citizen, not a government employee, to help bring our two countries together.”
That wasn’t the view of the judge who presided over her case, though, who said her work was directed by a Kremlin-linked Russian official.
Butina was not formally charged with espionage, which would have suggested the stealing of state and military secrets. Experts say her focus was on infiltrating U.S. political circles in ways that would be useful for Russia’s foreign policy.
Some former U.S. counterintelligence officials dismiss her claims of innocence, while acknowledging she wasn’t a run-of-the-mill spy. Joseph Augustyn, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, commented in the Atlantic Monthly: “One thing the public should know about Butina is that she was not a ‘spy’ in the traditional sense, but rather what the intelligence community would call an access agent.”
As an access agent she would have been able to pinpoint possible recruits and use unwitting accomplices to help promote Russian interests, he and other former counter-intelligence officers argue.
U.S. prosecutors alleged in court documents that Butina “maintained contact information for individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB,” or Russian Federal Security Service. Additionally, prosecutors claimed FBI surveillance observed Butina having a meal with a Russian diplomat whom the U.S. government expelled in March 2018 on suspicion of being a Russian intelligence officer.
Some security analysts, however, say it still remains unclear whether her operation was initiated by Russia’s FSB or whether it was conceived by her patron, Alexander Torshin, a former deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, as a way to boost himself within the Kremlin administration.
According to Mark Galeotti, an analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, the shadowy siloviki – a Russian term for the "men of force" from the military, intelligence and security services — and their friends, clients and partners in business and politics compete with each other for Putin’s attention. Adventurism and covert missions can be highly rewarded when successful.
“They compete to catch his eye and win his favor,” he notes in his book “We Need To Talk About Putin.”