- Maria Butina, a Russian operative who conspired to gain access to conservative circles in the U.S. to advance Russian interests, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday.
- In December, Butina pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. while plotting an influence campaign with a Russian government official that involved infiltrating the NRA and other influential conservative groups.
- Butina has been in jail since her arrest in July and will receive credit for the 9 months she already served, she will be deported back to Russia once her term is complete.
Maria Butina Sentenced in Federal Court
Russia national Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for conspiring to infiltrate U.S. conservative political circles to promote Russian interests.
Butina pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Department of Justice. She admitted to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative organizations to open backchannel lines of communication.
She also admitted to using her contacts in conservative political circles at the National Rifle Association and at the National Prayer Breakfast to sway U.S. relations with Russia, as part of a broader Russian-influence campaign.
Butina’s efforts started in 2015 and continued until she was arrested and detained in July of 2018. She has been incarcerated since her arrest and will receive credit for the nine months she has already served. Once her sentence is complete, she will be granted her request to be deported to Russia.
Before receiving her sentence, Butina said that she never intended on causing harm. She said she came to the U.S. to receive a graduate degree from American University in Washington D.C. because she “wanted a future career in the international policy.”
“At the same time, I wished to mend relations while improving my own resume,” Butina continued, “So I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country I grew to love.”
Butina claimed that if she had known she needed to register as a foreign agent with the government, she would have done so.
“Though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret these events,” Butina said. “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.”
Butina’s lawyers also emphasized these points, describing her activities as “friendship citizen diplomacy” rather than a “nefarious” campaign to infiltrate conservative organizations to advance Russian political interests.
On the other side, the prosecution argued that while Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense, she still gathered sensitive information by gaining access to people in the highest places at some of the most influential conservative organizations.
“The value of this information to the Russian Federation is immense,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Kenerson, the lead prosecutor for the case. “Such operations can cause great damage to our national security by giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction.”
The prosecution also claimed that Republican operative Paul Erickson, who was also Butina’s boyfriend, connected her with prominent conservatives. The information she received from those individuals, as well as Erickson, was reported back to Russian officials.
Prosecutors argued that Butina’s relationship with Erickson, who is identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court documents, was purely for political gain.
“For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors wrote last year. “Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”
Erickson has not been charged in Butina’s case so far, but he was indicted in February in an unrelated fraud scheme.
The prosecution’s arguments were ultimately echoed by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who oversaw the case. While giving her sentence, Chutkan said Butina was indeed a legitimate graduate student, but concluded that “she was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system.”
“She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government,” said Chutkan, “Under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process.”
Chutkan described Butina’s networking with the NRA, efforts to arrange for NRA leadership to visit Russia, and other actions as explicit and intentional attempts to establish backchannel communication lines to promote Russian interests.
“The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,” Chutkan said. Chutkan also argued that while Butina’s actions “might” have been legal if she had registered as an agent for the Russian government, the fact that she did not disclose this information was exactly the reason why her actions “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy.”
Her failure to register, Chutkan asserted, was so harmful because it prevented the government, American University, the NRA, and other groups from understanding exactly what she was doing, and taking actions in response.
In her plea papers, Butina stated that she conducted the infiltration campaign under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official and lifetime NRA member.
Butina called the plan “Diplomacy Project,” and described it as an effort to form relationships with people high-up in conservative organizations over the course of multiple years as a way of eventually reaching the Republican winner of the 2016 election.
Butina planned the strategy in March 2015 and intended on specifically targeting gun rights groups, citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party.
Ironically, Butina’s sentence comes on the same Donald Trump is attending to massive NRA conference in Indianapolis.
For two years, she attended conferences and events to meet with Republican presidential candidates and those close to them.
She went to NRA conventions, attended Donald Trump’s inaugural ball, organized “friendship dinners” with influential Americans, and arranged for a Russian delegation to attend the distinguished National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
Butina accessed to those groups by creating a gun rights group in Russia and working as an interpreter for Torshin.
Butina’s sentence marks the first time a Russian national has been convicted for attempting to influence American policy before the 2016 election. However, her case was not handled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and she was not one of the 13 Russians named as part the indictments resulting from the Muller Report.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (NBC News)
China Cautiously Crawls Out of Zero COVID Policy
Estimates put the number of people who will die if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.
People Go Back to Bars
The Chinese government has begun to ease some of its notoriously strict pandemic lockdown measures, signaling that the end of the “zero-COVID” policy may be on the horizon.
On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.
In Shanghai, visitors to most sites will require a negative test within the last week, rather than the last two days, though schools, hospitals, and bars will require one within the past 48 hours.
Dining in restaurants in some parts of Beijing is still prohibited, but bars and restaurants in many areas of the country are reopening.
In Urumqi, where anti-lockdown protests erupted late last month after an apartment fire killed 10 people, authorities said in a statement Monday that malls, markets, and other venues will reopen.
Zhengzhou, the central city home to the world’s largest iPhone plant which was last month rocked by violent unrest, will no longer require COVID test results for public transport, taxis, and visits to “public areas”, authorities said in a Sunday statement.
Beijing authorities had required registration to purchase fever, cough, and soar throat medicine, which they believed people were using to hide their coronavirus infections, but that mandate has been lifted. Certain districts in the capital also announced that some residents may self-isolate inside their homes rather than being forced to quarantine in a centralized facility.
Is China Ready to Reopen?
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said last week that the country’s health system had withstood the test of the virus and that the omicron subvariant is less deadly than previous strains.
But there has not been a significant drop in cases recently to prompt the easing of restrictions. On Monday, the government reported 30,014 new cases, down from last week’s peak of over 40,000 but still near record highs for China.
Some observers speculate that the government’s move was related to the recent protests, in which thousands of people poured onto the streets of several major cities to demand freedom and an end to the zero-COVID policy. Authorities cracked down on demonstrators, and any mention of the protests was rigorously censored on Chinese social media.
There was no sign of any significant unrest this weekend.
Although many people are excited to enjoy less restricted lives and restart a shuddered economy, others are concerned about the public health consequences reopening society could incur. Estimates put the number of people who will die from the coronavirus if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.
Last week, the government launched a campaign to vaccinate the elderly population.
Only about 40% of people over the age of 80 have gotten their booster shot, according to official statistics.
Health experts and economists say vaccination rates and ICU preparedness won’t be sufficient to fully end the zero-COVID policy until mid-2023 or 2024.
See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
India Pedestrian Bridge Collapsed 4 Days After Renovations, Killing Over 100 People
The company responsible for the upkeep of the Morbi bridge did not obtain a safety certificate before re-opening.
After seven months of renovations, the Morbi walking bridge in India opened to the public. Four days later, the bridge collapsed, killing more than 130 people.
According to the local government, there were about 200 people on the bridge when it collapsed on Sunday, despite its capacity of 125.
During a campaign event on Monday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the state government had set up a committee to investigate the tragedy.
“I assure the people of the country that there will be nothing lacking in the relief and rescue efforts,” he stated.
Along with the investigation, the state has launched a criminal complaint against Oreva Group, the company responsible for maintaining the bridge. Oreva Group reopened the bridge after renovations without getting a safety certificate from the government.
In response, Oreva Group spoke to a local news outlet and blamed those on the bridge for its collapse.
“While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other,” the group claimed.
The state government has offered compensation for the families of the deceased, but that is not enough for some. One father whose wife and two children died in the collapse told VICE he wants answers and accountability.
“Why were so many people given tickets? Who allowed them? Who is answerable?” he asked.
Indian police have arrested nine people including ticketing clerks and security guards for failing to regulate the crowd, according to Reuters.
Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on China by Eliminating Rivals
Despite the staggering power grab, Xi faces geopolitical competition from abroad as well as social and economic instability at home.
Xi Surrounds Himself With Allies
Chinese President Xi Jinping shook up politics over the weekend when he revealed the government’s new leadership, almost exclusively composed of his own hardline loyalists.
Six men — Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Xi — will form the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body.
The four new members are all Xi loyalists, pushing out Premier Li Keqiang and the head of China’s top advisory body Wang Yang, two key party figures outside Xi’s inner circle who retired despite being eligible to serve another term.
For the first time in a quarter-century, China’s 24-member Politburo will be made up entirely of men, underlining the exclusion of women from Chinese politics.
An official account of the selection process said that a top criterion for leadership was loyalty to Xi, and rising officials must stay in lockstep with him “in thinking, politics and action.”
Topping off the developments, Xi officially secured an unprecedented third term as leader, something that was only made possible in 2018 when the government abolished term limits on the presidency. The weekend marked China’s greatest consolidation of political power in a single figure in decades.
As the 20th Communist Party Congress came to a close Saturday, China’s former leader Hu Jintao appeared reluctant as he was suddenly and inexplicably escorted from his seat next to Xi out of the Great Hall of the People.
Some commentators have argued that a tightly knit band of yes men may help Xi fend off internal party dissent, but it could ultimately result in poor governance as his subordinates fear giving him bad news.
The Arc of History Bends Toward China
Despite the extreme concentration of political power, China’s Communist Party stares down a gauntlet of challenges both foreign and domestic.
Beijing remains locked in a strategic competition with Washington, which has sought to contain the East Asian rival’s rise as a global superpower, but the past week’s congress may portend a stubbornly defiant China for years to come.
Xi is expected to use his firmly secure position within the party to pursue his agenda in full force — by strengthening Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, expanding China’s economic foothold in developing countries, and achieving self-sufficiency in strategic technologies such as semiconductors.
At home, China’s economy has faltered during the pandemic, with high unemployment, low consumption, and slow economic growth putting pressure on a government that stakes much of its legitimacy on promises to deliver prosperity to the population. Between July and September, the country’s GDP grew by 3.9%, according to official data released Monday, which is above many analysts’ expectations but still far below the state’s target of around 5.5%.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics postponed the data’s publication last week ahead of the 20th party congress, reinforcing concerns that Xi’s leadership will put politics before economics.
Monday’s announcement roiled stock markets, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index plunging 6%, as well as the Shanghai Composite and the Shenzhen Composite Index both falling by about 2%.
Beijing has also seen increased political resistance from the population, from anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai to widespread mortgage boycotts over delays from real estate developers.
Last week, a man unfurled two large banners from an overpass in Beijing and called President Xi a “dictator” through a megaphone.
Such small-scale demonstrations are not new, but they took place in the capital just before the congress drew enough attention for photos of the stunt to go viral on social media, where an equally swift censorship campaign stamped out any mention of it.