On Friday, the U.S. government filed sentencing guidelines for Russian agent Maria Butina. Despite speculation that Butina’s connections with the NRA and Republican politicians might net her no more than a suspended sentence and a deportation back to Russia—where she could expect something of a hero’s welcome—the government instead asked for an 18-month sentence on a single count of conspiracy. They describe her as “not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country,” but insist that Butina’s actions were “for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States.”
The sentencing document details Butina’s actions, how they compare to those of others sentenced for the same crime, and why the government is seeking a sentence solidly in the middle of the potential range. But appended to the sentencing guidelines is an addendum authored by the former head of the FBI Counterintelligence Division. And that addendum doesn’t just explain why Butina’s actions are significant; it provides a window into something that has so far gone almost without mention in the post-Mueller report period: the counterintelligence investigation of Russian actions.
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, picked up on the addendum to Butina’s sentencing and has done an evaluation of how these pages reveal the significance of what’s still lurking out there when it comes to Russia, the Trump campaign, 2016, and beyond. The counterintelligence aspect of the Russia investigation is the one area that has been so far fully “redacted.” Because it’s not in the report. Other than a few black bars in the Mueller report that may be related to that investigation, the counterintelligence work has continued in silence, offering few insights into its discoveries.
But what’s revealed in this document is Butina’s role not in gathering intelligence, but in acting as an “access agent.” Her purpose wasn’t to rifle the files of the NRA for damaging information. It was to find those people in the Republican Party so desperate for power that they would eagerly reach out to Moscow as a means of keeping or extending that power. And she found many.
Press descriptions of the actions of Butina, her Moscow-based controller Alexander Torshin, and the various U.S. “boyfriends” and associates she found to follow her lead have made the whole affair seem like not much more than that—an affair, one in which a second-rate Mata Hari got NRA leaders and Republican strategists to fawn over her with nothing but a smile, some red hair, and the promise of meetings with like-minded folks inside the Kremlin.
However, the assessment attached to Butina’s sentencing presents the situation as “grim.” Butina didn’t have to work hard to find Republicans eager to conspire with Moscow; she practically had to work to keep the line at her door manageable. And her actions are just a single instance of a broader pattern.
As the documents make clear, there is a direct connection between the kinds of contacts Butina was making and the meetings with Russians conducted by Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner, and Erik Prince, and Roger Stone, and George Papadopoulos, and many others. All of these connections represent a pool of possible secondary agents who may, wittingly or unwittingly, generate value for Moscow and are “of substantial intelligence value to the Russian government … for years to come.”
All those efforts to set up a “back channel” with Russia, like the one notably led by Michael Flynn and Kushner, create "commensurate harm to the United States, including harm to the integrity” of the “political processes and internal government dealings, as well as to United States’ foreign policy interests and national security."
It wasn’t just Maria Butina. It was everyone whom the Trump campaign, the NRA, and other Republican operatives were talking to in 2016, before 2016, and after 2016. The purpose of these Russian agents was to make contacts that could gain them access and information when it was needed. To turn dozens of Americans into a Russian network operating in and around the White House. As Weiss concludes
Seen against this backdrop, it’s clear that the conduct outlined in Volume I of the Mueller Report created enormous damage to US national security. Recall that none of what Mueller covers in the CI investigation requires mustering proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
But as [the addendum to Butina’s sentence] explains, “Russia’s efforts targeting the United States take a myriad of forms — it is, in essence, a numbers game. Not every intelligence campaign needs to be successful for Russia to have achieved its goals.”
The fact that Maria Butina has appeared in hundreds of headlines and is currently in jail awaiting sentencing certainly makes her one of the most visible of the agents involved in this recruitment effort. But it certainly doesn’t make her the most successful.