This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
During and after the 15-month prison sentence she served after admitting to working as an unregistered foreign agent, Maria Butina complained about both her sentence — “this is absolutely absurd” — and her treatment in prison — “it is a torture.”
When she returned to Moscow last month, to a hero’s welcome, she repeated some of those complaints, saying her sentence was excessive, and also thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin, who at one point called her prosecution “arbitrary.”
Three weeks later, Butina is entertaining job offers, including one from the state human rights commissioner to be an advocate for other Russians who Moscow asserts are facing injustice behind bars in the United States and other countries.
It’s not quite as flashy as the gig that another Russian woman who pleaded guilty to a similar U.S. criminal charge and was deported a decade earlier ended up getting upon returning home: Anna Chapman, who has been a TV show host, magazine editor, and lingerie model.
But the position, if Butina were to accept it, would put her in a prominent role in service to an ongoing campaign in which Moscow has accused the United States of “hunting” Russian citizens around the world.
The United States denies its law enforcement actions target citizens of any specific country.
To her defenders, and critics of the U.S. case, Butina was the victim of mob hysteria, caught up in a wave of anti-Russia sentiment that they claim infected U.S. politics and society, particularly in the run-up and after the 2016 presidential election that was won by Donald Trump.
The first two years of Trump’s presidency were shadowed by allegations that his allies colluded with Russian officials and by the U.S intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
Butina’s case was prosecuted by lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department, but was unconnected to the investigation overseen by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which also documented a Russian-government-orchestrated interference campaign.
Butina, who had kept out of the public eye after a warm welcome at a Moscow airport on October 26, made her first public appearance on November 18 at a media event hosted by the Kremlin-appointed human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova.
During the event, Butina repeated her past thanks for Putin for his support during her incarceration.
“Even the president of the Russian Federation defended me, just a student from some university, because being a Russian citizen is more than enough for the president to speak out in your support,” she said. “I wanted to express my deep gratitude to Vladimir Vladimirovich for his repeated statements in my defense.”
“I saw it, I know it, I really appreciate it. I am very proud that I was born and raised here and that I am a Russian citizen. I hope to benefit my homeland in the future,” she said.
Moskalkova, echoing Butina’s praise of Putin, asserted that he had been involved in the cases of other Russians jailed abroad, helping “those who have fallen into a difficult life situation or have become hostage to political insinuations and complex international relations.”
Putin “fights like a lion, literally, for every citizen of the Russian Federation,” Moskalkova said.
She also offered Butina a job on the commission.
“I invite you to work in our group defending our compatriots abroad,” Moskalkova said. “I’m sure together we’ll be able to do a lot of good for people who have ended up in tough situations abroad.”
It wasn’t clear whether Butina accepted the offer. She did not respond to messages sent via social media, and no phone number could be immediately located for her in Moscow.
Butina was charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, a criminal charge under U.S. law sometimes known as “espionage-lite.”
She pleaded guilty in December to that one count, which included the allegation that she had sought to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. gun rights group, and to influence conservative activists and Republicans.
During her trial, U.S. authorities presented evidence that Butina’s main financial backer was Aleksandr Torshin, a former Russian lawmaker and high-level Central Bank official and, according to Spanish prosecutors, a man with close ties to Russian organized crime.
She ultimately was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Later, Butina told Russian reporters that she “didn’t expect such a severe punishment.”
“This is absolutely absurd. This is a huge disgrace for the U.S. justice system,” she said.
In an interview she gave to the CBS TV news program 60 Minutes shortly before her release from a Florida prison, Butina denied knowing Torshin was an influential Russian official, even though one text message introduced as evidence showed her writing to Torshin directly and calling him influential.
She complained about conditions in U.S. detention facilities, particularly one where she was held in Washington, D.C.
“Cockroaches were everywhere,” she said. “No mattresses or blankets.”
“It is a torture. It is not normal for a human being to be locked for 23, 20, 22 hours in a cell by your own. Do you really think for not filing the paper you deserve 18 months of incarceration, four months in solitary confinement, and all this experience in jail? Is that the way?” Butina said.
U.S. officials have denied that Butina was mistreated at any time during her detention.
At the November 18 event in Moscow, Moskalkova did not mention any names, but she appeared to be referring to the cases of several Russians who have been held, convicted, or sentenced by U.S. authorities.
Most frequently mentioned by the Russian Foreign Ministry are Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 after being convicted over arms trafficking-related charges. Yaroshenko is a pilot serving 20 years in a prison for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the country. Both were arrested in third countries and extradited to the United States.
At least a dozen Russians accused of various cybercrimes have also been detained, and some extradited to the United States, in recent years. After Russian Aleksei Burkov was sent from Israel to the United States last week to face charges related to the online theft of credit card numbers, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that Washington was “hunting” Russian citizens around the world.
While she was in prison, the Foreign Ministry made Butina the poster child for its campaign asserting that the United States was targeting Russians abroad. The ministry’s social media avatars were replaced with photographs of Butina, and it created a hashtag #freeMariaButina.
Shortly after her arrest in July 2018, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted, without evidence, that Butina had been subjected to “physical and psychological experiments” while in prison.
The Foreign Ministry had also signaled that Butina might be considered a hostage, and she might be exchanged for Americans being held in Russia on charges they deny. Those included Michael Calvey, a well-known investor who is accused of financial crimes, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security director and former U.S. Marine accused of espionage.
Putin earlier this year called the U.S. treatment of Butina a travesty, and asserted that she had received the prison sentence in an attempt by U.S. authorities to save face despite what he claimed was a weak legal case.
Moskalkova also noted that Butina had been offered a job in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, and she urged her to accept that one too.
That appeared to be a reference to an offer made earlier by Leonid Slutsky, an outspoken member of the Duma and chairman of the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Given that we had something to do with her [prison release], we have been in contact with her, this is well known. As for her future employment, she’ll have to figure it out herself,” Slutsky told the Interfax news agency.
When Butina was first arrested, many observers drew parallels between her case and that of another Russian woman alleged to have been working in the United States for Russian interests.
Anna Chapman, who was also charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, allegedly had been trained by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. She was one of 10 people accused by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of being a so-called “sleeper agent.”
After being deported to Russia in 2010, as part of a spy swap, Chapman became a minor celebrity, hosting a weekly TV show, editing a business magazine, and posing in lingerie for a Russian men’s magazine.
By contrast, Butina “was not a spy in the traditional sense,” U.S. authorities argued in court filings.
“She was not a trained intelligence officer,” prosecutors wrote in a pre-sentencing memo. “But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States.”
In an interview with Izvestia in July, prior to her release, Butina’s father said that his daughter planned to write a book and use the proceeds to pay off some of her debts to her U.S. lawyers.