Russian national Maria Butina obtained an F-1 student visa in August 2016 to pursue graduate studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
But a much later FBI counterintelligence investigation learned what State Department security screeners for the F-1 visa apparently overlooked: Since at least 2015 and possibly as early as 2013, Butina worked as special assistant to a ranking Russian politician close to the Kremlin and presumably connected to Russian intelligence. He was identified in court papers only as “the Russian Official”, but in media reports as Alexander Torshin. Torshin was a well-known and politically connected public figure who parlayed his position as a legislator in the Russian Federation to appointment as a top official of the Russian Central Bank, with presumable links to federation intelligence services.
Hints were publicly available beyond Butina’s work relationship with Torshin. For instance, prior to obtaining the August 2016 student visa, Butina demonstrated her Kremlin connections in December 2015 when she arranged meetings between National Rifle Association officials and “high-level Russian officials” organized by Torshin, an identifiable hallmark of an influence operation. Screeners might also have explored Butina’s own political dedication to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and raised questions about it. As a college student, Butina had been politically active in the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, the BBC later reported. While studying political and educational science at the Altai State University in her Siberian home town of Barnaul, Butina was politically engaged and active in the university debating society, where her views could have been plumbed.
State Department visa vetting for the F-1 likely did not uncover Butina’s work relationship with Torshin, her devotion to Putin’s Kremlin, her involvement in arranging meetings with the NRA in Russia before getting her student visa, and her early political activism. Any of this reasonably would have led to a visa-approval delay for further counterintelligence investigation or a denial. An earlier counterintelligence investigation could have short-circuited further damage from Butina’s and Torshin’s continuation of political influence operations in Washington, D.C., after she received the visa, activities that targeted conservative American political circles close to the White House. Instead, Butina’s case only came to light amid later scandals over Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, according to the Washington Post.
With the F-1 visa placing her in Washington, D.C., Butina and Torshin built social networks in Washington among conservative U.S. lawmakers and other conservative Americans with presumed influence at the White House. She more fully penetrated the National Rifle Association as part of the Torshin-directed operation.
Federal prosecutors in the case alleged that Butina’s work – illegal mainly because she did not register with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent – served the Russian strategy of creating political wedges within the American population, thus undermining and weakening American democracy, shaping public opinion for that purpose, and furthering Russian interests at the expense of the United States, prosecutors later alleged.
“Penetrating the U.S. national decision-making apparatus and the Intelligence Community are primary objectives for numerous foreign intelligence entities, including Russia,” a probable cause complaint stated. “The objective of the Russian Federation leadership is to expand its sphere of influence and strength, and it targets the United States and U.S. allies to further that goal.”
The complaint further explained that “Russian influence operations are a threat to U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations. Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”
In July 2018, the FBI arrested Butina on charges of illegally operating as an unregistered foreign agent. After serving 15 months in prison, Butina was deported to Russia in 2019.