As far as spy craft goes, Maria Butina’s skills didn’t seem particularly impressive.
The alleged covert Russian agent liked to communicate via Twitter messages and WhatsApp. Her overly flirtatious approach left men wondering what she was truly after. She tended to brag about her ties to Russian intelligence when she was intoxicated, according to people familiar with the situation.
“She’s like a Scud missile. There’s no precision,” said CIA veteran Robert Baer, a CNN intelligence and security analyst.
Butina has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent in the US. Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, told CNN Wednesday that she wouldn’t take a deal from prosecutors if it meant admitting she was a spy.
“If you’re not an agent for a foreign government, you can’t lie and say you are in order to get rid of this,” Driscoll said.
But intelligence experts say Butina’s far-from-subtle approach to infiltrating Republican political circles in the US appears to be just one tactic in Moscow’s arsenal as Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed to influence American politics and disrupt democracy ahead of the 2016 election. Those efforts are continuing, Trump administration officials say, in the run-up to the midterm elections.
Putin has numerous intelligence services at his disposal. Some excel in hacking. Others churn out seasoned operatives to gather intelligence and quietly recruit Americans. But there are also more informal missions, ones that are often directed by Putin himself with the help of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor.
“It’s much less structured,” Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert and foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said of Russia’s influence operations. “There often is kind of a proxy lead actor, who is usually an oligarch close to the regime, that is given a project and he outsources portions of that project.”
“I almost think of it as project management,” Polyakova added.
It also helps shed light on why run-ins between a ragtag assortment of Russians and members of Donald Trump’s orbit appeared so random.
In April 2016, a Maltese professor with Kremlin ties informed Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of damaging emails about Hillary Clinton, according to court records.
A month later, a Russian man who went by Henry Greenberg made a more overt offer to longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone: damaging information on Clinton in exchange for $2 million. Stone has said he believes the offer was part of a law enforcement setup directed at the Trump campaign.
That same month, May of 2016, Butina and her alleged handler, Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, snagged a brief meet-and-greet with Donald Trump Jr. on the sidelines of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. That was only after her efforts with Torshin to establish back channel communications between candidate Trump and Putin fell short.
By June of 2016, a Russian lawyer met with Trump Jr. and other top Trump campaign officials for the now infamous Trump Tower meeting. The Trump officials believed the lawyer was there to offer dirt on Clinton. The offer was pushed by a Russian billionaire with ties to Putin.
“Everything is not necessarily a planned and highly disciplined intelligence operation,” said Steven Hall, a retired CIA chief of Russia operations and a CNN national security analyst. “Sometimes there’s these more freelance types of things that also go on.”
Efforts to make inroads with the Trump campaign or other right-wing political groups go hand-in-hand with Moscow’s more coordinated efforts to hack the Democrats, spread disinformation on social media, sow division and try to sway voters in favor of Trump, according to intelligence experts.
“It’s still part of a large tapestry that Vladimir Putin is weaving,” Hall said.
A not-so-secret agent?
With distinctive red hair, a fiery personality and an affinity for social media, Butina operated at a higher decibel than one might expect from an alleged covert agent.
In her graduate-level classes at American University — a cover for work on behalf of the Russian government, according to prosecutors — Butina vociferously defended Putin. She also claimed, in class, to be a liaison between the Trump campaign and the Russians, according to a person familiar with the situation.
People who met her through school and through political events described her as a little too friendly. She was quick to start playing footsy under the table or sidle up to an older man at a political event and suddenly request that they become friends on Facebook, according to people who knew her.
On at least two separate occasions she got drunk and spoke openly about her contacts within the Russian government, even acknowledging that Russian intelligence services were involved with the gun rights group she ran in Moscow. Twice, classmates reported her actions to law enforcement because they found her comments so alarming, sources said.
In her final months at American University, the FBI raided her apartment. They arrested her in July.
By the time of her arrest, Butina had become the subject of a torrent of news coverage.
“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin wrote to Butina in March 2017, offering compliments for some of the initial media coverage she received and comparing her to a Russian intelligence official who was arrested in 2010 as part of a spy ring operating in the US. “She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” the Russian official wrote, according to court documents.
“It’s better to keep a low profile now,” Butina wrote later in the conversation, according to court documents.
But the under-the-radar approach never seemed to suit Butina.
Before moving to the US for school, she was featured in a 2014 Russian GQ spread, wielding two handguns and sporting Dolce & Gabbana briefs, a leather trench and stilettos.
On a visit to the US in July 2015, she attended a political event in Las Vegas, identified herself as a visitor from Russia and asked then-candidate Trump whether he would pursue sanctions against her homeland.
Then, she documented the encounter on social media, a pattern she followed when she attended NRA events and met politicians including former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who all ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Santorum is now a CNN contributor.
There’s little hint Butina had the same type of formal training as Chapman.
Chapman’s colleagues used fake names and had carefully crafted fake identities. They used invisible ink, hid data in images that were posted on public websites and sent Morse-code style messages using radio transmitters to communicate, according to court documents.
Butina, meanwhile, ran a years-long influence operation that involved communicating regularly via email and Twitter messages, according to prosecutors.
“Most Russian spies don’t communicate by Twitter direct messages which are unencrypted,” Driscoll has said, while arguing his client’s innocence.
But as Torshin’s round of plaudits suggests, Butina’s noisy way of doing business probably didn’t make her any less valuable to the Russian government, intelligence experts said. In fact, her high-profile contacts probably caught the attention of the FSB and led them to believe her mission was more successful than they had initially hoped, experts said.
“I think that anyone who is Russian has to meet with the FSB when they go back and forth and frequently,” Butina’s lawyer said in a previous CNN interview. Russians are often asked “what they’re doing in America, if they had any information for the FSB,” Driscoll said. “I think those kind of things were discussed by her.”
Traditional tradecraft focuses on stealing defense secrets. But understanding American culture and how to undermine it is increasingly valuable to countries like Russia and their efforts to disrupt US democracy.
“Access to human beings is hard to replicate,” said Philip Mudd, a veteran of the CIA and the FBI and a CNN counterterrorism analyst. “Human beings can shortcut, ‘What’s their plan going into the next election. What do they talk about?'”
By the time she was arrested, Butina had leveraged her romantic relationship with a Republican operative from South Dakota, Paul Erickson, to build connections in GOP circles, according to prosecutors. Erickson hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing.
She and Torshin were regular attendees at exclusive events surrounding the NRA’s annual meetings. She had attended two National Prayer Breakfasts and one Conservative Political Action Conference. She attended a post-Thanksgiving barbecue at South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford’s family farm.
“Eventually Russians are going to need people on the ground here — whether they’re witting or unwitting Americans — to help them with their propaganda operations,” said Hall, the retired CIA chief of Russia. “There’s probably a lot now and there’s probably going to be a lot more.”
When investigators executed searches on Butina and Erickson’s homes, court documents reveal a note that investigators found in Erickson’s handwriting: “how to respond to FSB offer of employment?”
It’s unclear which of them it was for.