A 29-year-old Russian woman living in D.C. who was indicted last week for allegedly engaging in a conspiracy to clandestinely act as a Russian agent is part of a longstanding effort by Moscow to foment discord in the U.S. by exploiting divisive issues such as guns, LGBT rights, and racial bias, according to a source close to the investigation into the woman’s activities.
After hearing evidence presented by federal prosecutors, a D.C. grand jury on July 17 indicted Maria Butina on charges of criminal conspiracy and illegally acting as a foreign agent within the U.S. A U.S. District Court judge the following day ordered her held without bond after prosecutors said she had moved out of her D.C. apartment and was at risk for leaving the country.
An FBI affidavit filed in court in support of a criminal complaint against Butina said an FBI investigation revealed that she was working in the U.S. at the direction of an unnamed “Russian official” and that the two sought to build “back channel” lines of communication with American politicians.
“These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” the affidavit states.
A source close to the investigation, who spoke to the Washington Blade on condition of not being identified, said investigators believe Butina’s actions were part of an ongoing Russian effort to undermine the U.S. political system and American democracy.
“Investigators were looking at activities in certain ways that ran along social fault lines in the United States, guns being one of them, gay rights being another, and racial equality being another,” the source said.
“So a lot of the activities, not all, but a lot of the activities that have been reported out in various channels had talked about the NRA, the anti-gay efforts that Putin encouraged in Russia and how that was part of the appeal to the Evangelicals and religious conservatives,” said the source.
Although prosecutors have said Butina appeared to target conservative U.S. organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, the source said her efforts were consistent with the overall plan by Moscow to exploit the anti-LGBT and anti-black sentiment of far-right groups to heighten divisions and strife in U.S. politics.
Another source who spoke on condition of not being identified is a law enforcement expert familiar with federal investigations into Russian intrusion in U.S. politics. The source had no direct knowledge of a specific instance in which Russian agents in the U.S. attempted to get involved in an LGBT-related issue, but said that would be consistent with the tactics they use.
“That wouldn’t surprise me because that’s really what they do,” said the source. “They go into areas that have sort of some level of sensitivity in this country or others,” the source said. “They do it all over the world. And then they pump it full of disinformation to incite people emotionally about the topic.”