Although Butina pleaded guilty to acting as Russian agent, pro-Kremlin outlets doubled down on disinformation about her arrest and prosecution
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 🇷🇺🇺🇸 legal cooperation.”
Прекратите охоту за россиянами по всему миру. В американских тюрьмах ещё остаются наши соотечественники, осуждённые по сфабрикованным обвинениям. Цивилизованный подход – использование имеющихся механизмов 🇷🇺🇺🇸правового сотрудничества. https://t.co/AEdWLCc8Ej
— Пос-во России🇷🇺 в США (@RussiaInUSA) October 26, 2019
Narrative: Butina pleaded guilty only because she was under moral and physical pressure in prison.
The Russian government has maintained that Butina is innocent, even in the face of her guilty plea. After she was released, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that the prison administration deliberately created intolerable conditions for Butina in an effort to force a false confession. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the whole American system, from media to politicians, had worked in sync to break Butina down. In her interview with RT, Butina claimed that the prison administration treated her in a manner similar to how detained terrorists were treated after 9/11. A headline on Vesti TV claimed that “Butina had to fight for food in the American prison.”
Pro-Kremlin TV channels Rossiya 1 and Perviy Kanal displayed lists of “tough conditions” Butina faced in prison. These lists included solitary confinement and extremely low temperatures in the cell, regular checks on her cell, the withholding of medical treatment, and being prohibited from receiving mail in Russian.
Polygraph previously reported that there was no evidence that Butina faced extraordinarily harsh conditions while in prison. Moreover, statistics show that more than 97 percent of cases are being resolved in a plea deal in the United States, with fewer than 3 percent going to trial. Therefore, it is very likely that her attorneys convinced her to take a plea. Although currently she claims she was under pressure, Butina previously confirmed that her plea was voluntary.
Narrative: Butina ended up in prison as a consequence of domestic political conflict in the United States.
Pro-Kremlin commentators have also suggested that the charges against Butina are politically motivated. In particular, they claimed that she was arrested because of the political rivalry between the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. According to this line of reasoning, Democrats wanted to smear Trump’s image, and Butina’s detention just ahead of the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and Trump in Helsinki helped Trump’s opponents achieve that goal.
Russian commentator Dmitry Drobnitsky compared polarization between the U.S. political parties to a “cold civil war” that can turn hot at any moment. Rossiya 1 channel anchors asserted that Maria was a political prisoner and only released after the election was over because a “Russian spy” scandal no longer served a political purpose. Butina herself also claimed that political climate in the United States after Trump’s victory had significantly affected the investigation into her case.
Since Butina first surfaced in the public eye, pro-Kremlin outlets have used her case as fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda and disinformation. Even though Butina has admitted her culpability in the past, the Kremlin continues to characterize her as an innocent victim of American Russophobia and domestic political instability. Furthermore, Russia’s human rights commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova recently offered Butina a state job to work with ombudsperson’s office to protect Russians imprisoned abroad. Butina accepted the offer.
Given how pro-Kremlin outlets have approached coverage of Butina’s arrest, it is unsurprising that they capitalized on her return to Russia as an opportunity to inject Kremlin propaganda into the news cycle. From the moment Butina landed in Moscow, pro-Kremlin journalists began interviewing her on subjects designed to elicit responses that align with Kremlin narratives, such as the intolerable prison conditions she faced in the United States and the alleged politically motivated nature of her arrest and prosecution.
Givi Gigitashvili is Research Assistant, Caucasus, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
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