The 30-year-old Russian national initially pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent after prosecutors accused her of infiltrating political groups like the National Rifle Association to bolster Russian interests. But on Thursday morning Butina is slated to appear in DC federal court to plead guilty to conspiracy as part of a deal with prosecutors.
Butina, who is being held in solitary confinement in a northern Virginia jail, has been incarcerated since her arrest in July.
While it’s highly unusual for an accused Russian spy to cooperate with US prosecutors, early indications are that her cooperation is narrow in scope. She has been offering information about an American — her boyfriend, GOP political operative Paul Erickson — who helped her make inroads with conservative political groups.
But it’s unclear how much Butina can offer to lift the veil on Russian influence operations. She is not seen as a hardened spymaster in the mold of Cold War intelligence assets, even though her incarceration has attracted global attention.
“It’s my theory that Butina is not actually a staff officer of any Russian intelligence service,” Steve Hall, the former CIA chief of Russian operations, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. “She is somebody who has been co-opted by somebody else in the Russian government to do a job.”
In Butina’s case, that person appears to be Alexander Torshin, who held several senior positions in the Russian government and directed Butina’s activities in the US, according to court filings. Torshin recently retired as deputy governor the Central Bank of Russia.
“When you catch a spy, sometimes punishment is secondary to learning everything they did and everything they know, because that can provide a wealth of information in catching other spies and how foreign intelligence services work,” said Eric O’Neill, a former FBI investigator who played a key role in the takedown of Robert Hanssen, the FBI turncoat who spied for Russia.
Federal investigators will likely try to figure out how she fit into the larger mosaic of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While Butina was inroads with the National Rifle Association and prominent conservatives to try to bolster Russian interests, Russian intelligence agencies were unleashing an unprecedented campaign to meddle in the election and help Donald Trump win.
Some of Moscow’s operations were highly-coordinated efforts. According to US intelligence, Russian military intelligence hacked the Democrats and then disseminated damaging information. The Russians also created a troll farm to sew division and influence American voters via social media.
“Butina was another pawn on the chess board,” said Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. “Lots of people were doing lots of different things, all with the same goal. Butina was … another pathway to possibly reach Trump himself and influence the campaign.”
A hero or a traitor?
Under the terms of her plea agreement, Butina will likely be deported after her cooperation ends and she is released from detention.
That would be a risky bet for a spy who spilled secrets about Russian tradecraft since the Kremlin has a history of murdering dissidents and traitors.
But that’s unlikely to be Butina’s fate if her cooperation is limited in nature. Plus, there’s little indication Butina has extensive knowledge of Russian spy craft or intelligence operations.
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed surprise this week about Butina’s case.
“I went and asked all the heads of our intelligence services, who is this?” Putin said at an event Tuesday. “No one knows anything about her at all.”
At this point, it’s more likely that Butina could receive a hero’s welcome back in her homeland.
The Russian government has adopted Butina as another plank in its long running list of grievances against Washington that it says prove that American democracy is a ruse.
Kremlin-controlled outlets like RT and Sputnik have highlighted her case as an outrageous abuse by the US government. Russian government accounts on Twitter, including the official handle of the Russian Foreign Ministry, have promoted the #FreeMariaButina hashtag.
“This is a very useful narrative for the Kremlin,” Polyakova said.
“This poor girl is sitting here, our Butina, she faces 15 years in prison, for what?” Putin said Tuesday.
Erickson could be implicated
Butina’s cooperation may be most damaging to the American who is mentioned 15 times in Butina’s plea documents as “US Person 1” and is directly implicated in the criminal conspiracy — Erickson.
Erickson helped Butina identify politically influential individuals to build relationships with. At one point he used his connections with the NRA to try to help Torshin and Butina broker a meeting between Trump and Putin during the 2016 campaign. But Erickson’s efforts fell short.
While Erickson hasn’t been charged with any crimes, he is under scrutiny from investigators in Washington and South Dakota. One of the lingering questions is why Erickson jotted down “how to respond to FSB offer of employment?” on a list that investigators discovered while searching his home.
Erickson’s attorney, William Hurd, declined to comment on the meaning of the note. In a statement Tuesday, Hurd said, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has never done anything to hurt our country and never would.”
Erickson has visited Butina in jail throughout her incarceration, but he’s kept a distance from her legal proceedings. His lawyer said Erickson won’t be attending Thursday’s hearing.