Updated at 10:22 a.m. ET on March 20, 2019.
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.” The website was first discovered by freelance journalist Dean Sterling Jones. 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.