Former top U.S. intelligence officials are warning the guilty plea by a former Russian graduate student and self-proclaimed gun-rights advocate should serve as a wake-up call about the Kremlin’s brazen desire and ability to interfere with the American political system.
Maria Butina, a 30-year-old native of Siberia, entered the plea Thursday in Washington, admitting she worked with a top Russian official, and two other Americans, to infiltrate U.S. conservative groups and the Republican Party for Russia’s benefit.
Her efforts, according to court documents, which included attending events hosted by the National Rifle Association gun-rights group and hosting so-called “friendship dinners,” were directed by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At one gathering in 2015, she even managed to ask President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time, about U.S.-Russian relations, prompting him to say he thought he would “get along very nicely” with President Putin.
“It certainly is yet more validation of the Intelligence Community Assessment,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told VOA via email, referring to the unclassified January 2017 report by the country’s top three intelligence agencies that concluded that Putin and the Russian government aspired to sway the election in Trump’s favor
Significance of plea
Clapper, who has been publicly critical of Trump since leaving office, said the Butina plea is most significant because it shows “the lengths to which the Russians went to meddle in the 2016 election.”
“It illustrates, as well, the astute understanding the Russians have of our political ecosystem; the fact that they singled out the NRA speaks to the death grip the NRA has on many of our politicians,” he added.
Other former intelligence officials said the details in Butina’s guilty plea put a spotlight on the Kremlin’s obsession with undermining the U.S. from within.
“The big picture takeaway is that Russia comes at the U.S. target with every option it can muster — full-fledged spies operating under some kind of cover, a corps of “Illegals” like the 10 expelled from the U.S. in 2010, and someone like Butina who is best seen as espionage ‘lite,’” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA.
“In combination, these three techniques increase dramatically the possibility that Moscow will gain something — or someone — of intelligence value,” he warned.
Plea agreement downplayed
A Kremlin spokesman Friday called the charges against Butina “absolutely groundless and invalid.”
And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov downplayed the significance of the plea agreement.
“As far as I understand the whole idea of this plea agreement — this practice is typical for the U.S. — is to bargain for a chance to go free as soon as possible and to get back home,” he told reporters.
Plea deal unusual
Former U.S. officials admit a plea deal in a case like this is unusual and note that if she makes good on her promise to cooperate truthfully with prosecutors, it could help unravel and expose others who were part of Butina’s network, leading perhaps to more indictments and embarrassment for some organizations.
“It basically pulls the curtain back on the Kremlin’s broader objectives, to gain influence with the Republican Party and the right in America,” said Max Bergman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and director of the Moscow Project, and who served in the State Department under President Barack Obama.
One of those coming under scrutiny is Paul Erickson, a U.S. political activist with extensive ties to the Republican Party who was romantically linked with Butina.
Erickson matches the description of “Person 1” in the statement offense provided by prosecutors. “Person 1” helped advise Butina on which politicians to target, according to the document.
Erickson’s lawyer, William Hurd, said in an email to the Reuters news agency, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has done nothing to harm our country and never would.”
White House officials had no comment Friday on the Butina guilty plea.
Trump himself, while not having commented on Butina specifically, has repeatedly denied allegations he or his presidential campaign coordinated with Russia, calling the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller a “witch hunt” and stating “NO COLLISION” on Twitter.
Russian efforts to meddle
U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also have not commented on the significance or impact of the Butina guilty plea, though many officials have warned Russia’s efforts to meddle in U.S. domestic politics have not stopped.
“We continue to see a pervasive message campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told reporters from the White House briefing room in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections this past November.
And in October, U.S. prosecutors unsealed charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, described as the chief accountant for Russia’s multimillion-dollar information warfare operation to influence both the 2016 and 2018 elections.
While many of Khusyaynova’s social media efforts focused on conservative U.S. voters, some also targeted liberal voters and aimed to stir up anger, and even hatred, for Trump.
Officials and experts said as a result, it would be a mistake to assume there are no others like Butina out there who, rather than targeting Republicans and conservative groups, are looking to infiltrate liberal parties and organizations.
“The Russians don’t have a partisan agenda,” said the Moscow Project’s Bergman, pointing to a 2015 gala to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Russian-owned television outlet RT, during which Russia’s Putin sat at a table with former Trump adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
“Their agenda is for discord,” Bergman said.