I feel a little sorry for Maria Butina. (Reuters) Exclusive: Accused Russian agent Butina met with U.S. Treasury, Fed officials. But CNN, always keen on human interest stories, takes the cake with The Russian accused of using sex, lies and guns to infiltrate US politics.
Unlike Anna Chapman, Butina was not directly controlled by the SVR. Her effective controller was Alexander Torshin, long a member of the Kremlin’s inner circle. Torshin is widely believed to be a Kremlin representative of the Kremlin criminal faction, or “clan”, as the Russians say. (Bloomberg) Mobster or Central Banker? Spanish Cops Allege This Russian Both.
But unlike Chapman, who was not a productive spy, Butina was working the system with panache, netting Paul Erickson, a former Reaganite. Erickson’s sentiment has plenty of company. Dana Rohrbacher, with his strange Russian affinities, was also a Reaganite. (NY Times) He’s a Member of Congress. The Kremlin Likes Him So Much It Gave Him a Code Name.
But as Butina’s espionage job description was not inked in the blood of the SVR, she may have not understood where she stood on the scale of grays that leads from mere affinities to espionage. Quoting CNN,
In a search of their property, a prosecutor said, they found a note in Erickson’s handwriting titled: “Notes on Maria’s Russian patriots-in-waiting organization.” A second note referred to a Russian spy agency, reading: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” The context of the notes is not clear.
Irrespective of who received the FSB offer, this casualness is not in accord with meticulous secrecy of the professional spy. It has shades of the reckless amateur, like the latter behavior of Andrey Lugovoy, who four years after poisoning Alexander Litvinenko, sent Boris Berezovsky (Telegraph) a tee shirt with an explicitly threatening message. Butina even told (CNN) the Senate Intelligence Committee that Konstantin Nikolaev was paying her. What kind of spy testifies truthfully to a U.S. government committee?
Butina sounds more like a girl desperate to escape from Siberia, and willing to sell her soul to do it. But in the U.S., many forms of soul-selling are indictable offenses.
It appears that while Torshin managed Butina’s job,, Konstantin Nikolaev managed the money. (USA Today) Report: Alleged spy Maria Butina paid by Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev. She was kept on a tight leash. (CNN):
Butina fretted about her finances while in school and told colleagues she had a scholarship that covered her tuition but not her living expenses, according to one person who knew her. In addition to her internship, she held part-time jobs on the American University campus, a university spokesman confirmed.
CNN quotes an unnamed friend:
Butina, who had told classmates she hoped to one day open a consulting firm in Washington, mentioned that all of her dreams were disappearing. She said it was no longer safe for her to return to Russia, either.
We have this distillation:
- Butina was being squeezed financially, by inadequate financial support from the Russians.
- She had the notion that returning to Russia would not be safe. Only an explicit threat, of Russian origin, could reverse the expected reward for service to the Russian state.
- She contemplates an offer from the SVR to become a spy, with a note to that effect in her apartment.
- Butina is likely the victim of manipulation by the Russians, to force her to accept SVR employment. Perhaps the next step of her “development” involved transitioning to secure work habits and clandestine communications. So they wanted to squeezer her into becoming a “real spy”.
- She did not understand the legal difference between a domestic political operator/lobbyist, and an agent of a foreign power. The job activities can be so similar, the differences blur. It all depends on who you’re working for.
- To work for the SVR, which she may have been resisting in spite of severe pressure, she would have had to give up something that she didn’t want to part with. What was it? The burial of her identity beneath a rigid mask?
In factual comparison, she may be a little less gray than Harry Dexter White, or the numbers of communist sympathizers in government between the 30’s and the 50’s, the lingering overhang of a romantically viewed Russian Revolution. Yet people are still arguing about whether White was a spy.
So why prosecute Maria Butina? These reasons contend in the mind of a prosecutor:
- A strong FARA case. The F.B.I. is very reluctant to submit a case to federal prosecutors unless it’s very strong. Winning is part of the mystique that serves as a deterrent, and keeps strong the incentive for the defendant to plea-bargain.
- A conviction, even a plea-bargain, strengthens future cases against unnamed U.S. citizens, of whom one is likely Paul Erickson.
- To raise awareness of Americans in politics. That friendly Russian could be a Russian agent. The prosecution, or follow-on cases, must serve as a cautionary tale.
A cautionary tale of what? It would be easier if we had a word for it. The word “treason” has had some play recently. But in the U.S. prosecutions for treason have been restricted to strongly symbolic political offenses, with the Constitutional requirement of two witnesses to the same act.
So those who spy, conspire, or subvert are prosecuted under a miscellany of other statutes, for which there is no single bad word. “Betrayal” might be general enough, but it has no legal meaning. The offenses in this article are all covered by FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But the name of the act sounds more like a technical violation than betrayal of your country.
At least two former Reaganites, former warriors of the “Evil Empire”, have been caught up in this moral confusion, It should be no surprise that some Republicans a generation younger than Dana Rohrbacher and Paul Erickson are naive about the dangers.
What’s missing is the equivalent of a stop-look-listen rule for interacting with Russians. The confusion has to do with Russia’s current dual nature. In place of Bolshevik romance, it has a decent domestic government, compared to what came before. It has a system of state capitalism that superficially resembles our own. The similarities serve as a cover for a foreign policy of subversion in the West.
The case of Maria Butina has lurid aspects. As with Anna Chapman, it involves the attraction of influential men on the basis of power, ego, gain, and sex, cloaked as “mutual interest”. Once you understand the approach, it’s very easy to recognize. But political operatives, professional spin artists, are themselves strangely vulnerable in their search for the edge that will take them to the top. The Butina story is an old one, but it has value in deterrence.
To all members of the political strata, three word of advice. Ironically, they were coined by a Reaganite: