This piece was originally published in The Integrity Initiative
Russia uses many techniques in what is often now called “hybrid war”. They include subversive disinformation operations aimed at weakening Western countries and destroying trust in democratic institutions, as well as the direct lobbying of Russia’s interests through various unofficial channels of influence. Elements of this system of influence on Western societies and financial institutions are oligarchs and wealthy businessmen, propaganda media based in Western countries, various organizations for Russians living abroad, and even sometimes representatives of organized crime.
At the same time, in Russia, big business, the media, and the mafia are very closely connected with the Russian intelligence services. As a rule, such “agents of influence” don’t participate in espionage operations, and their functions are limited only to creating a positive image of Russia or laundering money through the Western financial system. However, sometimes Russian intelligence also uses civilians as ‘access agents’ or informants. Let’s look into how this works.
Maria Butina: “a talented amateur” or an inexperienced spy?
In mid-December of last year, a Russian woman Maria Butina, 30, who was arrested in the United States, pleaded guilty to one of the charges in the framework of her plea deal with the investigation. In particular, she confirmed that she had participated in a conspiracy to promote Russian interests in the United States, including infiltration of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the creation of shadow channels of communication between the Donald Trump team and the Russian government.
We have to admit that in this field the young woman has really achieved considerable success. At the same time, Butina informed her American contacts that the channels she created were approved by the administration of the Russian president and personally by Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, despite some successes in lobbying for Russian interests and influencing conservative circles in American politics, Butina made a number of mistakes that are unacceptable for a spy or even for an experienced agent of influence. For example, according to the FBI, a note with instructions on how to answer questions about working for the FSB was found in her apartment, and her e-mail contained contacts of several people who in the US were considered to be employees of this special service.
Butina went to lunch with an unnamed Russian diplomat, whom US intelligence officials suspected of spying activities, and in conversations with third parties she spoke contemptuously about her partner, explaining that she was living with him only “for the sake of the cause.” Moreover, she corresponded on Twitter with a Russian official (presumably, ex-senator Alexander Torshin), reporting that she was “ready for new assignments”. Not to be outdone, Torshin himself compared his protégé to Anna Chapman and periodically gave her “mentoring” advice – also in unprotected Twitter correspondence.
Based on Butina’s missteps, some American experts assumed that she was not a professional spy, but simply an agent recruited by Russian special services.
“Butina is not a professional intelligence officer but a source who develops access to people and provides targeting information and assessment to the professionals so they know who is vulnerable and who to go after. She just tees up fools for Russia to compromise,” said former senior CIA officer John Sipher. Other experts suggest that Butina could have had long-term contacts with Russian special services, namely, with the FSB, while living in Russia, that is, she was an agent of counterintelligence, not intelligence. In particular, this opinion was expressed by the former KGB lieutenant colonel Akif Gasanov, who served about 15 years in Soviet intelligence. The following circumstances speak in favor of this version.
- Butina’s biography includes episodes that are incompatible with the conditions of modern Russia. Initially, Maria was an activist of the “Young Guard of United Russia”, a youth organization of the largest pro-Kremlin political party, but soon after that she began to participate in Russian human rights and opposition projects, and none of the activists who spoke to her had any idea that she could work for the government or the special services. Of course, people can change their views, but such a change in modern Russia entails inevitable consequences, first of all, a break in relations with the government. However, for all her “opposition”, Butina continued to work for Alexander Torshin when he was a senator with pro-Putin views; she participated in organizing the visit of NRA representatives to Russia and had no problems with the FSB.
Such close contacts with the Americans and the opposition that Butina had during her life in Russia would certainly have attracted the attention of the FSB, as was the case with many genuine dissidents. If such attention was negative, this woman would not be able to continue working as an assistant to a member of the Council of the Federation. In addition, after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Butina again openly took a pro-government position and even traveled to the Donbass, where she gave fiery speeches “in support of Novorossia”. Based on this, it is logical to assume that her activities in infiltration of the Russian opposition, as well as developing contacts with the Americans, were under the control of the Russian special services during her life in Russia. However, the “work” on the opposition and foreign visitors inside the country is precisely the competence of the FSB, not the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
- The “legend” for Maria Butina, used by her in the United States, was even more incompatible with her activities and the realities of life in Russia. Russian authorities are afraid even of unarmed schoolchildren who rally against the government and the regime is based on intimidation of people and the constant use of force. Anyone who in fact promotes such a dangerous and unpopular among the authorities idea as the free gun ownership by citizens of a totalitarian country would not, in reality, be able to enjoy the support and favor of the authorities, unlike Butina, whose projects were approved personally by Vladimir Putin.
It seems that Butina’s “legend” was prepared specifically to deceive the Russian opposition and visiting Americans, but the woman suddenly became so successful in her work and her communication with Paul Erickson became so close that the intelligence services decided to “try their luck” in the United States, believing that American conservatives are not familiar with the political situation in Russia, and therefore will not notice the inconsistencies in the “legend” used by Butina. However, no one taught her either the ways of secure communication, or the methods of detecting surveillance, that is, the basic skills of a spy working abroad. Akif Gasanov suggests that Butina’s supervisors themselves did not expect such success, and the operative with whom Butina maintained contact was not up to the level of the work that was carried out.
- Let’s recall that the “memo”, which Butina kept, was about work for the FSB, and not the SVR. At the same time, Maria clearly had experience in networking and cultivating of trust, although she plainly did not receive any special training for working abroad.
If the above assumptions are correct, it means that Maria Butina, in fact, is an amateur in the area of foreign espionage, although she may have been a sufficiently experienced counterintelligence agent. A reasonable question arises: how many more “assets” from among the informers or, even worse, ordinary people, will the Russian special services use to work abroad?
Above-mentioned Akif Gasanov suggests that the FSB has sent to America not only Butina, but other people like her, as they say, “for random luck.” “If she was just one of many and was supposed to be used only to locate the target, it’s clear why she was not only poorly-trained, but also was not given a really qualified handler,” argues Gasanov.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the recruitment of Russians living abroad may occur not before emigration, but already during their life abroad. At the same time, it is not at all necessary that the newly-made agents have any previous experience of working for the Russian special services.
At the beginning of November of last year, the largest British media outlets reported that half of the Russian diaspora in the UK are informers of the special services (SVR, GRU, and even the FSB). This “sensation” was based on the misinterpretation of the report from the British think tank Henry Jackson Society about the scale of Russian espionage. In fact, the report, citing sources in the intelligence community, gives more modest numbers: about 500 agents led by 200 curators. However, the Russian émigrés themselves, who spoke with the author of the report, Professor Andrew Foxall, suspect that every second compatriot could potentially turn out to be a “secret worker” for the Russian special services.
Such suspicion of each other among Russian emigrants is explained by the fact that the opposition members of the diaspora perceive the pure fact of visits by their compatriots to the home country as a “risk factor”. Some defectors from among the former officers of Russian foreign intelligence agree with their opinion, noting that the Russian authorities have an effective “hook” against emigrants – their businesses or families in Russia, which entails a certain dependence on the authorities. Accordingly, during their next visit to their home country FSB officers may ask any such person questions, and he or she will not dare not answer them. According to the emigrants themselves, up to half of the former compatriots, especially those who are abroad temporarily, and only for the purpose of making money, are in such a potential risk zone.
Pros and cons of using amateurs
The recruitment of someone from the above-mentioned “risk group” entails certain advantages for Russian intelligence. Western intelligence agencies cannot track contacts of Russian intelligence with people “recruited for cooperation” during trips to Russia, and therefore they can do their job unnoticed by Western counterintelligence for a long time. These people are not personnel officers of special services, and, more often, they are not even among the agents of foreign intelligence, and therefore the risk of their exposure by defectors is minimized. Communication of Russian special services with such citizens can be reduced to the level of conversations with “proxies”, and includes only answers to questions, and not some complicated “special operations”.
The information that Russian security officials need from such compatriots most often is related to their life and work abroad and the contacts they made without any connection with intelligence. Amateurs are rarely entrusted with some special operations, and most often “questions that cannot be ignored” relate to the field in which a person is engaged on his/her job, and which somehow attracted the attention of Russian intelligence. Accordingly, some visible changes in the life of such an informant may not happen, and it is very difficult to understand at what point his/her contact with the Russian special services took place, and at what level it is carried out.
If we take into account the high level of support for Vladimir Putin in the Russian diaspora and a large number of “intermediate forms” of relations with the Kremlin: pro-Kremlin organizations, propagandists and “agents of influence”, – it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between an ordinary person and an agent of Russian special services. At the same time, the majority of people who are in the “risk group” may never meet with officers of the Russian special services, some may never go beyond a banal “political talk” and a formal answer to a couple of questions, and only a small part of that group is able to evolve into full-fledged spies over time. Tracing the process of such an evolution, again, is very difficult.
However, there are tangible disadvantages to working with amateurs. Let’s recall that even the relatively experienced “agent” Maria Butina, according to the American media, boasted about her connections with Russian intelligence when she was intoxicated. Ordinary people find it difficult to hide their excitement with the “romantic” espionage world that has burst into their lives. In addition, dilettantes inevitably make mistakes: they begin to overly actively contact people and collect information that they were not interested in before, they can’t keep their lies straight, or, as is in Butina’s case, their legend may simply not correspond to the realities of life in Russia. Their financial level, behavior and interests can change dramatically, and this too attracts attention. At the same time, if such people manage to find high-level connections, they still sooner or later land on the radar of counterintelligence, and then their mistakes become catastrophic.
In general, active involvement of ordinary people in the government’s crimes is the usual policy of totalitarian states, and the example of Maria Butina is, most likely, far from isolated. Unfortunately, the opportunity to touch the unexplored world of the “big game” is tempting for many people, especially those brought up on Russian propaganda with its cynicism and constant discourse on “geopolitics”. However, it is important for adventure lovers to remember that for the state they are only “disposable material”, and the state can easily “sacrifice” them at any time.