In the murky world of Russian influence operations, a troll farm based out of St. Petersburg can flood American voters with propaganda and disinformation at a deniable distance from the Kremlin. A Russian gun-rights group can cultivate U.S. conservatives at arm’s length from Vladimir Putin. And an unregistered Russian agent being held in a Northern Virginia detention center can have her legal bills paid by an NGO that is partly funded, but not directly controlled, by the Kremlin.
Maria Butina, the first Russian to plead guilty to seeking to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election, remains somewhat of a mystery. But her prosecution in Washington, D.C., last year shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. New revelations about Butina’s legal-defense fund in Russia shows that one of her backers has been trying to promote fringe separatist movements in the U.S. since well before 2016.
In 2018, Alexander Ionov, the founder of the NGO, called the Anti-Globalization Movement, began raising money for Butina through a fundraising website that says all proceeds will be “used to finance legal protection and to improve the conditions of Maria’s detention in prison.” To date, Ionov has raised about 2 million rubles (approximately $30,000) to help pay her legal fees, he told me in a recent interview. The Russian embassy, which has been advocating for Butina’s release, did not return a request for comment.
Butina was arrested in dramatic fashion in July, the day before President Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has since become enmeshed in the broader Trump-Russia story. But Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been investigating a potential conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia, did not charge Butina as part of his probe—prosecutors in Washington did. (Butina’s longtime boyfriend, Paul Erickson, was recently indicted for shady business dealings that have nothing to do with Russia.)
The fact that Ionov—a 30-year-old Russian lobbyist with ties to the Kremlin—has inserted himself here seems to deepen the intrigue of Butina’s case. (Ionov denied to me that he works for the Russian government.) The Anti-Globalization…