- 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)
5 Dead, 2 Injured After Bow and Arrow Attack in Norway
Police have called the incident a terror attack, though exact details regarding the suspect’s motives remain unclear.
Super Market Attack
The Norwegian town of Kongsberg is reeling from a deadly incident at Coop Extra supermarket on Wednesday that police are treating as “an act of terrorism.”
Shortly before 6 p.m., a 37-year old Danish man entered the market, armed with a bow and arrow, along with other weapons. He then began firing at those inside the building.
Authorities quickly responded and were on the scene within five minutes. Despite a police confrontation with the suspect, the attack continued. Four women and one man were ultimately killed while two others were left injured.
The suspect initially avoided arrest after managing to flee the scene. Police Chief Ole Bredrup Sæverud told reporters Thursday that it took 35 minutes to catch the attacker.
While police described the incident as a terror attack, they refused to specify a motive. Officials did hint that the rampage might have been religiously motivated by revealing that police had previously been in contact with the suspect due to his conversion to Islam and possible connections to radical content and teachings. Still, Sæverud clarified that the perpetrator hadn’t been actively investigated at all in 2021.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who was just hours away from leaving office after she was ousted in recent elections, described reports of the scene as “horrifying” on Wednesday. Incoming Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said in a Facebook post from Thursday morning that the attack was a “cruel and brutal act.”
Norway’s King Harald expressed his sympathies to the mayor of Kongs-berg, telling the country, “We sympathize with the relatives and injured in the grief and despair.”
“And we think of all those affected in Kongs-berg who have experienced that their safe local environment suddenly became a dangerous place. It shakes us all when horrible things happen near us, when you least expect it, in the middle of everyday life on the open street.”
Attacks of this nature are rare in Norway. In 2019, a right-wing gunman tried to enter a mosque before being overpowered and hitting no one. Wednesday’s attack is the most deadly since July 2011, when a far-right extremist killed 77 people at a Labour party summer camp.
Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murderers or suspected mass murderers who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.
Protests Erupt in Italy Over World’s Toughest Vaccine Mandate
The violence is believed to have been instigated by far-right groups that oppose COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic-related safety measures.
Green Pass Pushback
Demonstrators gathered in Rome over the weekend to protest against Italy’s plans to require a coronavirus “Green Pass” for all workers starting Oct. 15.
The Green Pass is a European Union initiative that shows whether someone is vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or has received a negative COVID test in the past 48 hours.
Since August, Italy has required the pass for entry at restaurants and use of long-distance trains, along with nearly every other activity that involves interaction with others or use of a public space. Now, the pass will be required to enter a workplace, which critics argue is particularly harsh.
Individuals who can’t produce a valid Green Pass will be suspended without pay, making it the most extreme of any COVID-19 mandate in the world.
The weekend protests started out peaceful, with people chanting “Liberta,” which means freedom. However, the scene turned violent by Saturday when a group of protesters affiliated with the far-right Forza Nuova party decided to storm the headquarters of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest and oldest labor union.
Protesters then marched towards the Prime Minister’s office, prompting police to respond with anti-riot measures like tear gas, water cannons, and shield charges.
It’s unclear how many protesters were hurt in the ongoing fighting, but dozen of police officers were reportedly hurt in the scuffle. By Sunday evening. at least 12 protesters were arrested, many of who are members of Forza Nuova, including its leader Roberto Fiore. Authorities also indicated in a press conference on Monday that it had identified at least 600 other people who took part in illegal activities during the demonstrations.
Fiore was unapologetic about the rioting, and Forza Nuova said in a statement, “The popular revolution will not stop, with or without us, until the Green Pass is definitively withdrawn. Saturday was a watershed between the old and the new. The people decided to raise the level of the clash.”
Saturday’s events have led many of the country’s largest political parties, including the 5Star Movement and the Democratic Paty, to support a motion calling for Nuova Forza and similar groups to be dismantled in line with a constitutional provision from 1952 that bans fascists parties.
While that motion is still going through the legislative process, prosecutors have already seized the group’s website in line with a 1988 law that bans inciting violence through public communications.
“The events [on Saturday] take us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history and they are an extremely serious and unacceptable attack on democracy,” Valeria Fedeli, a senator with the center-left Democratic Party, said on Monday.
The violence from the weekend may make it seem like a sizeable chunk of Italians are against the vaccine; however, over 70% of all Italians are already vaccinated, making it one of the highest rates in the world.
According to polling from the summer, most Italians think the new rules will help in the long run and prevent another catastrophe like last year when the country ran out of room to bury the dead due to the number of deaths caused by COVID-19.
Romanian Government To Disband After No-Confidence Vote
The vote comes after Prime Minister Florin Cîțu caused a rift with political allies and faced criticism for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Florin Cîțu, Alleged “Tyrant”
Romania’s center-right governing body collapsed Tuesday after the legislature passed a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Florin Cîțu.
The leader’s downfall was facilitated by the normal opposition, the center-left Social Democratic Party, the far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians, and the Union to Save Romania. The Union is considered a political wildcard because, until last month, the right-wing party was part of Cîțu’s governing coalition.
The party withdrew from Cîțu’s government after multiple of its members were sacked, including the Justice Minister, prompting the party to describe Cîțu as a “tyrant.”
Other parties in the legislature particularly opposed Cîțu due to his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic since taking office in December. COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed over the last month and have averages over 11,000 daily new cases since October 6.
Tuesday’s no-confidence vote was a landslide victory, with 281 members voting to replace him and all members of his party abstaining or boycotting the vote. Despite this, even if they had voted in favor of Cîțu, the opposition had more than enough to pass the 230 vote threshold.
Avoiding Another Election
President Klaus Iohannis, a staunch ally of Cîțu, has called on the political parties to hold consultations next week and try to form a new government rather than hold new elections because they last occurred in December.
“Romania must be governed; we are in a pandemic, winter is coming, there is an energy price crisis…and now a political crisis. We need solutions and mature decisions,” the president told reporters.
He also took a jab at the Union to Save Romania, saying that the fall of the government was caused by “cynical politicians, some of whom are disguised as reformists.”
The Union responded in a statement of its own, saying it was “unpleasantly surprised by the fact that President Iohannis condoned the rushed, chaotic, and ill-conceived actions of former Prime Minister Florin Cîțu that forced the [Union] to leave the cabinet.”
Some analysts within Romanian media think that Cîțu’s party may try to form a minority government with the Social Democratic Party, the left-leaning party that initiated this no-confidence vote, with the caveat that Cîțu is replaced as Prime Minister. If that doesn’t occur, Iohannis has the power to simply reappoint Cîțu at the risk of another no-confidence vote.
If Cîțu’s appointment is confirmed within 60 days, then elections will take place. The Social Democratic Party, which is already the largest in the legislature, currently stands to win the most seats. Unlike its rivals, the party is polling positively, leading the group to push for new elections sooner rather than later.