Stories of Russia’s historic and relentless drive to spy on and manipulate Americans have been a feature of cloak-and-dagger novels since John le Carre came in from the cold war. There are few works of fiction and fewer periods in the last century where the two superpowers have not been enemies. Suspense fans still mourning The Americans, streaming Red Sparrow, or binge-watching Killing Eve, have a steady supply of topnotch intelligence tradecraft, complete with high production values and keen plot twists.
Meanwhile, through the growing library of public grand jury indictments and FBI affidavits, thriller fiction (and foreign policy) fans, are getting a rare peek inside the secret schemes (and limitless lengths) of nonfiction Soviet-style espionage.
Under the auspices of former Soviet Union KGB intelligence officer and perpetual president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, there is seemingly no end to the ways democracy’s “competitor” can “sow discord” in the United States.
Although the drama of the Kremlin’s real-life secret mission still has many unknowns, the FBI has uncovered ample evidence of the Russian government’s “improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and on the U.S. political system” by “penetrating the U.S. national decision-making apparatus…to expand its sphere of influence.”
(Doubters should check out the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report. It’s not a spoiler to know that the Congressional panel concluded that the Russian government definitively sought to covertly influence and interfere in the 2016 presidential election.)
What’s always been most elusive in this unfolding story is whether or not anyone in the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated and conspired with Russian government efforts, in what some have called “collusion.” At least four Justice Department documents, which are discussed below, assert “U.S. persons” associated with the Trump campaign were a focus of the Russians’ efforts—the mystery is to what extent those “persons,” and other Americans, wittingly knew or communicated with the Russian agents. How far up that knowledge went within the Trump campaign is perhaps the number-one unanswered question. We do know from these indictments and arrests that Russia resolutely recruits and trains its own highly skilled men and women to secretly make personal contact with “U.S. persons” to influence and manipulate them. Putin’s people are picked carefully.
Take Russian national Maria Butina. The FBI alleges in a criminal complaint filed last week that the 29-year old American University graduate student and “lifetime NRA member” spent the last 5 years engaged in a “conspiracy to act as a foreign agent...against the United States.” Under the mentorship of a “high-level Russian government official,” Butina moved on a student visa to Washington, DC, in the months before the 2016 election to “develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish…‘back channel’ lines of communication” and create “low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions.” The FBI arrested Butina in Washington last week. Her high-level handler (believed to be former Chairman of Russian Federation Council Alexander Torshin) is no longer in the United States.
The FBI affidavit in support of Butina’s arrest notes the Russian Federation’s goal was to reduce Americans’ “trust and confidence in democratic processes,” degrade “democratization efforts,” weaken U.S. partnerships with allies, undermine U.S. and UK sanctions, and foment “anti-U.S. political views.”
An American “political operative” in the Butina complaint referred to as “U.S. Person 1” (media sources report the “operative” fits the description of conservative North Dakotan Paul Erickson), arranged Butina’s “introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including giving her access to the conservative National Prayer Breakfast and an “organization promoting gun rights” (elsewhere identified as the NRA). The prayer event and gun-rights group were to be a “communication channel” for “friendship and dialogue” with supporters of “Political Party 1” and its candidates.
According to Radio Free Europe, the Russian Foreign Ministry chief Sergei Lavrov phoned his U.S. counterpart Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Saturday and urged him to release Butina because the FBI had “fabricated charges.” Butina is being held without bail as a flight risk.
Meantime, a dozen Russian military officers named in a different indictment the previous week for gaining “unauthorized access into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election” are out of reach for questioning. Putin conditionally offered to let Special Counsel Robert Mueller observe their interrogation in Moscow but Mueller has been characteristically silent on that option.
While detailing the spear-phishing and cyber theft leading to public release of then-candidate Clinton’s and the Democratic National Committee’s campaign documents in October 2016, the indictment refers to a “U.S. Person...in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” who “communicated with the conspirators.” Roger Stone, a longtime associate of Donald Trump and advisor to his campaign, has acknowledged in press reports that he was in contact with the anonymous Russian Twitter persona “Guccifer 2.0” near the time Democratic Party documents were publicly released, but Stone insists that connection “provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion.” (The indictment also notes the “Guccifer 2.0 persona” received “a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress” and indeed “sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.”)
Last February, Special Counsel Mueller issued yet another indictment detailing the St. Petersburg, Russia-based Internet Research Agency’s work to conduct "information warfare against the United States of America."
We know the St. Petersburg online operation “staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons…solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates,” and contacted “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign….to coordinate political activities.” We also know Internet Research operations infiltrated American social media platforms for “the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016” by “supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump.”
Thirteen high-level employees of the so-called troll factory were charged in the February indictment, but they reside in Russia safe from prosecution. There is no extradition treaty between the United States and Russia.
The very first “U.S. Person” to face criminal charges associated with his communications with Russian interests was George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old foreign policy aide for the Trump campaign. He was also the first Trump for President 2016 staffer to plead guilty last year for lying to the FBI about it.
His pleading, filed last October, stated that after becoming an adviser to the campaign, Papadopoulos met a female Russian national in March 2016. He was told the woman was “a relative of...Vladimir Putin with connections to senior Russian government officials,” and subsequently advised a Trump campaign supervisor and members of the campaign's foreign policy team of his discussions "to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump." The campaign supervisor replied, "Great work."
These indictments do not and should not be expected to answer a number of important questions, such as: did the Russian efforts lead to the election of their preferred candidate? Did the efforts effectively influence American voters’ choices? Those mysteries linger. Congress has authority to unravel them, but so far unknowns remain.
The available documentation presents a cliffhanger narrative, but the real-world script of intrigue and espionage has yet to arrive at a satisfying denouement. Perhaps a few unnamed “U.S. persons” referred to in the legal documents will eventually be compelled to testify publicly. More chapters are soon to be written in this thriller.