Since her arrest in Washington, D.C., in July, Mariia Butina, the gun-slinging Russian student accused by the U.S. government of being a spy for her Motherland, has been languishing in a jail cell. Earlier this month, in documents arguing Butina should be held in detention because she is a flight risk, prosecutors revealed that Butina has gotten quite a bit of attention from top Russian officials.
According to the prosecution’s filing, the Russian government has conducted six consular visits to Butina and passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State about her case. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken twice to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to complain about Butina’s incarceration and prosecution. As prosecutors noted, in the days following Butina’s arrest, the official Kremlin Twitter account changed its avatar to a picture of her and launched #FreeMariaButina. RT — a Russian news outlet funded by the Russian government — has written a number of articles about her, decrying her prosecution and detention. According to prosecutors, “Russia has issued more diplomatic notes on the defendant’s behalf in the past month than for any other Russian citizen imprisoned in the United States in the past year. Put simply, the Russian government has given this case much more attention than other cases.”
As a former intelligence officer, I found these details intriguing. It seems likely that Russian officials visiting Butina in prison are looking to protect more than just the rights of a Russian citizen. They are looking to protect their ongoing intelligence operations. To that larger end, they likely have several goals in mind:
1. To assess the damage
Russian officials are likely assessing the damage from Butina’s discovery and arrest. They want to know what exactly the U.S. intelligence community knows about Butina’s activities and contacts, and what, if anything, Butina told them. This information will allow Russian intelligence to gauge if any other assets or operations might be compromised.
They can glean some of this from the prosecution’s court documents. For example, prosecutors detailed some of Butina’s correspondence, which read like operational cables. In one, she discusses establishing an “even more trusting relationship” with a U.S. person (who remains unnamed in the filings), which is language straight out of any intelligence service’s training manual on developing a source.
Additionally, Butina and her American lover and possible co-conspirator, Republican operative Paul Erickson — who is referred to in court filings only as U.S. Person 1 — and Alexander Torshin — a high-level Russian official referred to as “the Russian Official” — left quite a data trail, like emails, Twitter Direct Messages, and thumb drives. U.S. investigators now have that information, including phone numbers associated with the FSB — one of Russia’s intelligence services — and names and contact information for Russian officials with whom Butina communicated.
But beyond that, Russian officials likely want to know: Has Butina talked? Is she telling U.S. investigators more than what they already know? Or even confirming information they already have? Although Butina certainly does not have a big picture view of Russian intelligence operations in the United States, she may inadvertently give away details that seem innocuous to her but actually fill in pieces for investigators. Put simply, Russian officials want to know: Has she given anything away?
2. To reassure Butina
Russian officials also likely want to reassure Butina in order to keep her quiet. In convincing her they are doing everything in their power to get her out and get her home to Russia, they are attempting to stop her from sharing more information than perhaps she already has.
Prosecutors noted, after all, that Butina offered information on Erickson’s illegal activities, despite the defense counsel’s insistence that Butina and Erickson are in a committed relationship. Russian officials would want to make sure she doesn’t give away any information that might compromise Russian intelligence activities. They might even be coaching her on what to say.
3. To send a signal to other assets
Furthermore, top level and frequent attention to Butina might be a signal to reassure other Russian assets. It is the kiss of death for any intelligence service to leave an asset to perish. The message it would send to both potential and current assets would be fatal. Why would anyone risk working for an intelligence service that doesn’t protect its assets? Russia must signal its intent to help Butina, or risk losing other sources.
Indeed, it is a wonder that the Russian government allowed Butina to be arrested at all. She, Erickson, and Torshin had ample evidence the noose was tightening long before her arrest. According to court documents, in early 2017, they discussed the fact that a reporter had begun asking questions about them. Butina told Torshin, “Somebody really threw the three of us under the bus. Furthermore, this someone is well informed.”
Why didn’t the Russians whisk her home at that point?
It is possible that pulling Butina out too soon would have set off alarm bells and alerted U.S. authorities that Russian officials were nervous, which in turn would have signaled that Butina was involved in an important operation. Maybe the Russians thought they could lie low and it would pass. Or maybe allowing her to get caught had few consequences, and perhaps even helped the larger Russian objective of causing disruption in American politics. Or maybe this was intentional: Allowing Butina to be arrested has diverted attention from other operations.
Another explanation — and these are not mutually exclusive — might be Russia’s warped view of U.S. democracy and the power of the president. Having never spent time in a functioning democracy, Vladimir Putin cannot fathom that a president does not have absolute power. It might have never crossed his mind that those pesky checks and balances, such as law enforcement, are not just decoration, as they are for him at home. Perhaps he thought Butina would be safe.
Alex Finley is the pen name of a former CIA officer and author of Victor in the Rubble, a satire of the CIA and the war on terror. Follow her on Twitter: @alexzfinley.