Repatriation Of Maria Butina Inspires More Anti-American Propaganda
Convicted Russian agent Maria Butina received a hero’s welcome in Moscow after being released from a U.S. prison on October 25, 2019, and repatriated back to Russia. The Kremlin could not pass up the opportunity of using the event to attack the United States broadly.
Despite the fact that Butina admitted being a covert agent of the Kremlin, the Russian government denied all of the allegations and described the entire case against Butina as “fabricated.” During her 18 months behind bars, the Kremlin pushed a narrative that Maria was an innocent student and victim of political persecution. While Butina’s case contributed to deterioration of United States-Russia relations in 2018, her repatriation once again triggered anti-American hysteria in Russia.
Upon her release, pro-Kremlin outlets doubled down on four particular narratives: that Butina was merely attempting to facilitate better U.S.-Russia relations; that she was arrested solely because she was a Russian national; that her guilty plea was due to the physical and emotional duress she experienced while in prison; and that Butina was ultimately the victim of U.S. domestic political strife.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Butina on July 15, 2018, in Washington, D.C., on a charge of conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government within the United States. Butina was convicted for trying to establish back-channel lines of communication between Aleksandr Torshin, then-deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, and influential U.S. conservative operatives with the aim of advancing Russian interests.
According to the court’s sentencing memo, Butina was not a spy in the traditional understanding 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 December 2018, Butina pleaded guilty to the charges in U.S. federal court. She was deported to Russia upon completion of her sentence.
MOST ENGAGED-WITH ARTICLES
The DFRLab examined the most engaged-with articles on Butina’s case. The top four concerned Butina’s admission of guilt and were published in December 2018.
Butina’s return to Russia grabbed the headlines of major pro-Kremlin media outlets, which dedicated particular attention to her return, reiterating the Kremlin’s narratives about her unjust punishment. Google Advanced Search results showed that the main pro-Kremlin TV channels Rossiya 1, NTV, and Perviy Kanal produced over 10 articles and news stories each about Maria Butina’s release between October 22–31, 2019.
Four narratives regarding Butina’s deportation were particularly prominent among pro-Kremlin outlets during the last week of October. Narrative: Butina was trying to normalize relations between Russia and the United States.
Russian media and politicians asserted that Butina had simply sought to facilitate dialogue between conservative Russian and American politicians in order to mend ties between the two countries. They justified Butina’s efforts to establish close relations with American politicians by claiming that official channels of communication between Russia and the United States had become ineffective due to strained diplomatic relations between the two countries.
This narrative is false, as Butina was acting under the direction of a Kremlin-affiliated Russian official, Torshin, who the U.S. Department of the Treasury had previously sanctioned for interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. More specifically, U.S. prosecutors suspected Torshin of transferring money to U.S. political nonprofit advocacy organization the National Rifle Association (NRA) in support of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s election campaign. Consequently, Butina’s activities were considered to be a part of Russia’s larger campaign of interfering in American elections.
Narrative: U.S. law enforcement only arrested Butina because she was a Russian national; every Russian person in the United States should be careful.
Multiple actors, including Butina herself, presented her detention as an act directed against the Russian people. After coming back to Russia, Butina gave a long interview to Kremlin outlet RT, claiming that “racism” is thriving in the United States and that she was sentenced for simply being Russian. She urged all Russians to be very careful in the United States. Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador to the United States, echoed the message.
Pro-Kremlin outlets, including Zhurnalistkaya Pravda and Izvestia, picked the narrative up and asserted that any contact between Russians and Americans is seen as an “alien invasion.” Therefore, any Russian with extensive contacts with U.S. political figures and activists immediately comes under scrutiny of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence. One Kremlin propagandist, Vladimir Sovolyev, claimed that Democrats needed to arrest someone Russian in order to prove Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
The Russian Embassy in the United States also pushed this narrative through its twitter account. On October 26, the U.S. Embassy in Russia tweeted: “On October 25, 2019, Russian citizen Maria Butina was released from prison. She was deported after serving 18-month sentence in American prison for conspiracy to act as an agent of foreign government.” The Russian Embassy in the United States then retweeted it, adding the following comment: “Stop hunting for Russians around the world. Our compatriots convicted on trumped-up charges still remain in American prisons. A civilized approach is the use of existing mechanisms of