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.
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 Movement, a pro-Kremlin nationalist organization that has ties to Russia’s far-right Rodina (Motherland) party and enjoys funding from the Russian government, is in some ways a natural ally for Butina. Both have worked to infiltrate or meddle in American politics—Butina through the National Rifle Association and the conservative, Christian right; and the Anti-Globalization Movement through American separatists on either end of the political spectrum. Though their entry points differed, their central goal was largely the same—to advance Russian interests by exploiting the fault lines in a powerful, but highly divided, Western democracy.
In December, Butina—who founded the first gun-rights group in Russia, called the Right to Bear Arms—affirmed to a judge in Washington that from 2015 to 2018 she acted with another American, under the direction of a Russian official, as a foreign agent to “establish unofficial lines of communication” with influential politicians. She sought to establish these back channels primarily by hobnobbing with Republicans at conventions hosted by the NRA. It was during this period that the Anti-Globalization Movement held its first Dialogue of Nations conference in September 2015 in Moscow, which was attended by separatist leaders from Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Uhuru black nationalist movement. Its second conference, partially funded by a Kremlin grant of $54,000, was held a year later and brought together “representatives of national liberation movements from all over the world.” In December 2016, the California separatist group Yes California set up a makeshift embassy in Moscow with the organization’s help.
Ionov told me he’s been in constant contact with Butina’s lawyer, the former Justice Department official Bob Driscoll. Driscoll confirmed that they speak frequently.
Butina “is a human-rights activist,” according to Ionov, who denied that she ever collaborated with Russian government entities. He said that he’s been raising money for Butina through the Anti-Globalization Movement because in Russia only NGOs are allowed to collect donations from the public. Ionov runs Ionov Transcontinental (IT), which provides access to Russian government agencies by helping clients “realize the potential opportunities of their business through its participation in political activities,” according to its website. There is no evidence that Ionov works directly for the Kremlin. (IT’s vice president is Roman Khudyakov, a former Russian government official and a member of the Right to Bear Arms.) Ionov has a framed letter from Putin in the Anti-Globalization Movement’s offices in Moscow commending him for working “to strengthen friendship between peoples,” according to Vice.
Driscoll, Butina’s lawyer, confirmed that he’s been in touch with Ionov about the funds collected for Butina’s defense fund. But he said he’s not concerned by the Anti-Globalization Movement’s controversial history with either the Kremlin or U.S. separatists—he’s just happy Butina finally has some money to pay her legal bills. (An American, whom Driscoll declined to identify, had been funding her, but that person stopped paying the bills months ago, he said.) Driscoll added that he’s optimistic that next month the judge will give Butina a sentence of time served, allowing her to promptly return to Russia. He gave Butina’s passport to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in December, he told me, and is in talks with the agency now about facilitating a smooth deportation process. Driscoll has said throughout Butina’s time in prison that she is not a spy and has no ties to Russian intelligence services.