Russian Operative Maria Butina, Who Leveraged Christian Right Connections, Sentenced For Conspiracy

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Russian Operative Maria Butina, Who Leveraged Christian Right Connections, Sentenced For Conspiracy

Becky Garrison

While the focus of the sentencing memo is on Butina’s connections to organizations like the NRA, the memo also cites her connection to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that’s been hosted by The Family since 1953.

Russian National Maria Butina, 30, was sentenced to an 18-month prison term Friday in Washington after failing to register as a foreign agent for conspiring to infiltrate conservative U.S. political circles for the Kremlin.

In December, Butina pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Justice Department. While her case has been handled separately from the Mueller investigation, this case also exposed the various means employed by Moscow to influence U.S. policy.  

A sentencing memo filed on April 19, 2019 in this case describes a technique known as “spot and assess,” in which Russians who may be only loosely affiliated with the Kremlin set up private meetings to gauge who might have influence in the U.S. government and how to approach them.

While the focus of the memo is on Butina’s connections to pro-gun organizations (most notably the NRA), the memo also cites her connection to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that’s been hosted by The Family (aka The Fellowship Foundation) since 1953:

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Butina Hoped the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast Would Establish the Unofficial Communication Channel 

At the direction of the Russian Official, Butina included certain individuals within the Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, and she noted specifically that those individuals were “coming to establish a back channel of communication.” Statement of Offense at 5. The Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast organized by Butina ultimately included approximately fifteen people, which is significantly more than attended in the years prior to 2017. The delegation attended a U.S.-Russia Friendship Dinner two days prior to the actual event.

According to a document written by Butina after the event, in the lead-up to the National Prayer Breakfast, she and the Russian Official were promised a private meeting with the President of the United States by one of the organizers of the event. A copy of this document is attached hereto as Exhibit 8. This promised meeting never materialized. After the event, and Butina’s and the Russian Official’s failure to meet privately with the President, she was worried that another Russian national (i.e., not the Russian Official) would attempt to seize the initiative, as demonstrated in her Twitter conversation with the Russian Official: 

Butina: It would be good if you could talk directly with the MFA or the administration. Before [Russian national who attended the breakfast] worms his way in there. 

Russian Official: Everything will be fine. I already conducted the necessary informal consultations on Saturday. I just don’t want to overload Twitter, which is read. We need to build relationships with the USA, but there are many who oppose this! . .

According to Butina, this other Russian national referred to was another member of the Russian government whom Butina feared would overtake her and the Russian Official as the primary Russian point of contact for the National Prayer Breakfast.  

While this sentencing memo focused on Butina’s role in the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast, Russian participation in this breakfast increased significantly the following year. Religion News Service reported that Jim Slattery, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas who maintains ties to the National Prayer Breakfast and who attended in 2018, acknowledged Russia “probably had the largest group” of any country that year. RNS added that in an email Slattery said he was 95% sure Butina did not attend the 2018 breakfast. With Maria Butina in custody, the Russian connection present during the 2018 breakfast was not on display at the 2019 breakfast.

As I reported at TheHumanist.com, Butina’s Family connections run far deeper than simply infiltrating this annual breakfast:

In a July 21, 2018 article for The New York Post, [Jeff] Sharlet noted, “At a 2017 prayer breakfast in Moscow, Doug Burleigh—a current Fellowship leader and lifelong Russia hand—appeared alongside Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, to declare ‘a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the US is about occur.’”  

In an email exchange, Rob Boston, Editor of Church & State, spoke about this connection between Russian operatives and the religious right.  

America’s homegrown theocrats are increasingly looking to Russia and other authoritarian former East Bloc nations as models for the United States. These countries tend to be homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic. They’re often run by quasi-dictators who are highly nationalist and argue that the primary duty of women is to produce children for the fatherland. These nations usually promote traditional gender roles and often integrate ultra-conservative forms of orthodox religion with public policy. Essentially, these countries have implemented the agenda that the U.S. Religious Right has been working toward for years. The fact that they are totalitarian states that don’t respect individual freedom or human rights is of little concern to the extremists on our shores who yearn to use their religion to control the lives of others.

In his repporting, Sharlet documented how this breakfast offers foreign lobbyists direct access to the highest levels of power in DC. In describing the Family in an article for Vox, Sharlet characterized the group (of which Vice President Mike Pence is a member) as “an intensely powerful organization, whose specific vision of Jesus as the ideal ‘strongman’ governs their political theology and who have found, in strongman-sympathetic President Trump, an ideal vessel for their beliefs.”