Maria Butina reflects on her future in jailhouse interviews
As she awaited sentencing, Maria Butina said she was most looking forward to returning to Barnaul, her hometown in Siberia, to spend time with her family and, perhaps, become a teacher.
Butina insisted, in a pair of interviews with CNN at the Alexandria Detention Center, that she has no plans to become a media darling or television star when she returns home, a nod to the celebrity homecoming Russian intelligence agent Anna Chapman received when she returned to Russia as part of a 2010 spy swap.
“I’m not a circus bear,” Butina said during one conversation.
At her sentencing Friday, Butina pleaded with the judge for mercy, “for the chance to go home and restart my life.”
Judge Tanya Chutkan made clear Butina will have to wait longer than she had hoped to return to a quiet life in Siberia, sentencing her to 18 months in prison — nine months on top of the nine she has already spent behind bars. After Butina serves her time, she will be sent back to Russia.
In handing down the sentence, Chutkan highlighted the seriousness of Butina’s crimes. But she also acknowledged that Butina is a first-time offender and, at age 30, has plenty of time to start anew.
“You are an intelligent, personable, kind and hardworking person,” Chutkan said. She added: “You are not the worst thing you have ever done.”
In the interviews while Butina was in jail — which her lawyer permitted CNN to use after she was sentenced — Butina expressed remorse for her actions even before she appeared before the judge. She pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign official.
As part of her plea deal, she has cooperated extensively with the government and provided information about her boyfriend, Paul Erickson. Prosecutors allege that Erickson, a GOP political operative from South Dakota, was involved in Butina’s scheme to create a backchannel between the US and Russia and promote Russian interests.
Butina said she hopes no one else allegedly involved in her case faces charges.
Erickson has not faced charges in DC. And he is already in enough legal trouble as it is, she noted. He was indicted on money laundering and wire fraud charges in South Dakota, which he has pleaded not guilty to.
She said she has conflicting feelings about her longtime boyfriend. He treated her well, she said, packing up her apartment after her arrest, returning the items to Russia and staying in touch with her family. But she said she was unaware of many of the illegal financial activities Erickson was accused of.
Meantime, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian central banker that prosecutors say was her handler, has cut her off, Butina said. Butina’s father contacted Torshin twice. The first time, Torshin did not answer. The second time, Torshin said, essentially, this was not his business. Torshin has not responded to requests from CNN for comment.
Butina was more cautious about weighing in on the potential diplomatic ramifications of her case. Officially, neither the US nor Russian governments have pointed to a link between Butina’s case and that of Paul Whelan, a US citizen who was arrested in Russia in December and accused of spying. But some Russia experts said it appeared Whelan may have been picked up as retribution for the charges against Butina.
“Paul Whelan was just kind of sitting there on the shelf and they could have arrested him at any time,” Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA station chief who spent years in Russia, said based on his prior experience in dealing with Russia. “He’s being held as an insurance policy.”
She dodged questions about whether Russian consulate officials had ever raised the idea of a prisoner swap with her. She insisted her situation seemed different from Paul Whelan’s. She said she hopes their cases are not connected because she does not want to see that kind of an “eye for an eye” treatment.
At one point she said she was surprised Russian consulate officials had come to visit her at all, noting that the gun rights group she ran in Russia could have been viewed as an anti-government group. Court filings suggest Butina had multiple contacts with Russian government officials while she was in the US, however. In addition to her relationship with Torshin, she had met with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, though, according to court filings, she said the two did not get along particularly well.
In interviews, and again in court on Friday, Butina insisted she has no animosity toward the US and she still believes it’s the best place to get an education. She said in one interview that, once she is back in Russia, she might tutor Russian students who want to study in America on their SATs.
When she acknowledged the challenges of incarceration, she often put a rosy spin on some of the aspects of her time behind bars. She referred to jail as a “dream diet” at one point, noting that she had lost considerable weight due to the food served as well as the stress.
But she grew teary-eyed while speaking about the pain this experience has caused her family, especially her father. She described him as a “strong, Russian man” and said she had never seen him cry until he broke down in tears on the phone with her following her arrest.
She said it was particularly difficult to have to confront some of the salacious allegations prosecutors made against her and answer her family’s questions about them. Early in the case, prosecutors claimed that Butina had tried to exchange sex for a position with a special interest group. They also said her tenure at American University was just a cover for her Russian advocacy efforts. Prosecutors later walked back both of those claims.
The judge acknowledged the sensational and inaccurate claims prosecutors had made, noting on Friday, “In the era of Google, those will be difficult to overcome.”
For Butina, the weight of her crime, incarceration and accompanying media coverage was evident. Her voice wavered in court Friday as she addressed the judge.
“I have three degrees but now I’m a convicted felon with no money, no job and no freedom,” Butina said. “My reputation is ruined.”