The Voice of America (VOA) Reporter Pete Cobus recently traveled to Maria Butina’s hometown of Barnaul, Russia, to speak with friends, family, teachers and other associates in the wake of the 30-year-old’s high-profile conviction in the United States.
The VOA News story traces Butina’s path as a University student in Barnaul toward the halls of power in the Kremlin. Her mentor at Altai State University’s School of Real Politics, Konstantin Emeshin, described a ambitious, outgoing woman.
He nominated Butina for the Seliger educational forum, a prestigious lakeside summer camp designed for political “training,” and labeled by the New Yorker magazine as “Russia’s Nationalist Summer Camp.”
“She knew everybody,” Emeril said referring to three men who were close allies to President Putin, two who were former ministers.
Yet, among those Cobus interviewed was Alexander Ionov, vice chairman of the State Duma’s Security committee, who’s narrative tracks government claims about the young woman.
“Maria Butina is, first and foremost, a citizen of the Russian Federation and she is a person to whom the regulations of the international law should be applied,” Ionov told the VOA reporter.
Ionov insisted that from the “very moment” Butina was “interrogated” in the U.S. senate, she had divulged everything regarding her contacts and activities in the United States.
“That is why for me Maria Butina is a Human Rights activist, for me Maria Butina is a public figure, a student of the American University, and the most relevant is that she is a person who did not work (collaborate) with the Russian state bodies,” Ionov said in the interview.
After coming to the attention of U.S. lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Butina was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2018. During that eight-hour session, Butina reportedly told the committee that Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev financed her Russian gun rights group – Right to Bear Arms, the Washington Post reported.
Later that month, FBI agents raided her home.
After receiving a post-graduate degree in international relations from American University last May, Butina was arrested in July and charged with conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian Federation.
Prosecutors allege that for years Butina, at the behest of high-level Russian government officials, attempted to make inroads into the Republican Party and conservative circles in the U.S., including the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast forum, in order to advance the interests of the Kremlin.
Ionov’s characterization of Butina, a gun rights advocate, as a “human rights activist,” is similar to the narrative of the National Rifle Association, which characterizes itself as the “longest standing” civil rights organization in the U.S.
Evidence produced by prosecutors of Butina’s conduct as a public figure and student at American University in Washington D.C., belies Ionov’s claim she did not work or collaborate with Russian state bodies.
On December 13, 2018, Butina pleaded guilty before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to conspiring “to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign government, specifically the Russian Federation, without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
As part of the plea deal, Butina, who now faces a maximum of five years in prison and the prospect of deportation, waived her right of appeal.
Butina further agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities in an ongoing investigation.
The Evidence Establishing Butina as a Government Agent
As previously reported by Polygraph.info, the U.S. indictment of Butina described her relationship with Alexandr Torshin. The outgoing deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia and former deputy chairman of the Federation Council (upper house of Russia’s parliament), was labeled a “Russian official and Butina’s handler.”
Since Putin came to power in 2000, Torshin, a highly decorated government official, appeared at public events standing next to the Russian president – an honor reserved for those in the Kremlin inner circle who are closest to Putin.
Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April 2018 along with other Russian businessmen and politicians for “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”
The FBI’s criminal complaint against Butina, which she described in court when she plead guilty as a “true and accurate” account of her actions, direct message exchanges with Torshin and emails to her American associate – identified by prosecutors as “U.S. Person 1.” In her words, she refers to Putin’s direct approval of her “mission” on at least seven occasions.
In a letter dated March 30, 2016, Butina referred to a conversation between Torshin and Putin, writing that Torshin “suggested to President Putin that he consider coming to the National Prayer Breakfast forum next year, Feb. 2017, and Pres. Putin did not say ‘no’!” She also suggests that for Putin to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, he must receive a personal invitation from the U.S. president.
In her letters, Butina repeatedly cited the Russian Foreign Ministry’s approval for her own actions and Torshin’s visits to the U.S. and meetings with influential American politicians. In two instances, she wrote to Torshin telling him she had his diplomatic passport and that she could purchase plane tickets for him.
Polygraph.info therefore find that Ionov’s claim that Butina had not worked with Russian state bodies, mirroring similar claims in the past, is likewise false.