The Kremlin’s use of amateur agents

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist. She challenged the Putin regime’s false narratives about the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine and now lives in the US. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Integrity Initiative.

Russia uses many techniques in what is often now called “hybrid war”. They include subversive disinformation operations aimed at weakening Western countries and destroying trust in democratic institutions, as well as the direct lobbying of Russia’s interests through various unofficial channels of influence. Elements of this system of influence on Western societies and financial institutions are oligarchs and wealthy businessmen, propaganda media based in Western countries, various organizations for Russians living abroad, and even sometimes representatives of organized crime.

At the same time, in Russia, big business, the media, and the mafia are very closely connected with the Russian intelligence services. As a rule, such “agents of influence” don’t participate in espionage operations, and their functions are limited only to creating a positive image of Russia or laundering money through the Western financial system. However, sometimes Russian intelligence also uses civilians as ‘access agents’ or informants. Let’s look into how this works.

Maria Butina: “a talented amateur or an inexperienced spy?

In mid-December of last year, a Russian woman named Maria Butina, 30, who had been arrested in the United States, pleaded guilty to one of the charges in the framework of her plea deal with investigators. In particular, she confirmed that she had participated in a conspiracy to promote Russian interests in the United States, including infiltration of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the creation of shadow channels of communication between the Donald Trump team and the Russian government.

We have to admit that the young woman had achieved considerable success. Butina informed her American contacts that the channels she created were approved by the administration of the Russian president and personally by Vladimir Putin. At the same time, despite successes in lobbying for Russian interests and influencing conservative circles in American politics, Butina made a number of mistakes that are unacceptable for a spy or even for an experienced agent of influence. For example, according to the FBI, a note with instructions on how to answer questions about working for the FSB was found in her apartment, and her email contained the contacts of several people who in the US were considered to be employees of this service.

Butina went to lunch with an unnamed Russian diplomat, whom US intelligence officials suspected of spying activities, and in conversations with third parties she spoke contemptuously about her partner, explaining that she was living with him only “for the sake of the cause”. Moreover, she corresponded via Twitter direct messages with a Russian official (presumably, ex-senator Alexander Torshin), reporting that she was “ready for new assignments”. Not to be outdone, Torshin himself compared his protégé to Anna Chapman and periodically gave her “mentoring” advice — also in unprotected Twitter correspondence.

Based on Butina’s missteps, some American experts speculate that she was not a professional spy, but simply an access agent recruited by the Russian intelligence services.

“Butina is not a professional intelligence officer but a source who develops access to people and provides targeting information and assessment to the professionals so they know who is vulnerable and who to go after. She just tees up fools for Russia to compromise,” said former senior CIA officer John Sipher. Other experts suggest that Butina could have had long-term contacts with Russian intelligence, namely the FSB, while living in Russia: that is, she was an agent of counterintelligence, not foreign intelligence. This opinion was expressed by former KGB lieutenant colonel Akif Gasanov, who served in Soviet intelligence for around 15 years. The following circumstances add weight to this theory.

  1. Aspects of Butina’s earlier life seem incongruous considering the realities of Russia under Putin. Initially, Maria was an activist of the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth organization of the largest pro-Kremlin political party. But she then began to participate in Russian human rights and opposition projects, and none of the activists who spoke to her had any idea that she might be working for the government or the intelligence services. Of course, people can change their views, but a change like this in modern Russia brings inevitable consequences: above all, a break in relations with the government. However, for all her ‘opposition’, Butina continued to work for Alexander Torshin when he was a senator with pro-Putin views; she helped organize a visit to Russia of NRA representatives, and had no problems with the FSB. Any Russian maintaining close contacts with Americans and the opposition would certainly have attracted the attention of the FSB, as was the case with many genuine dissidents. If the attention was negative, Butina would not have been able to continue working as an assistant to a member of the Federation Council. In addition, after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Butina again openly took a pro-government position and even travelled to the Donbass, where she gave fiery speeches in support of ‘Novorossia’. It is logical to assume that her activities with the Russian opposition, as well as her development of contacts with Americans, were supervised by the Russian intelligence services during her life in Russia. Monitoring the opposition and foreign visitors is the FSB’s responsibility, not the Foreign Intelligence Service’s (SVR).
  2. The ‘legend’ Maria Butina used in the United States was even more incompatible with her activities and the realities of life in Russia. The Russian authorities are afraid even of unarmed schoolchildren who rally against the government, and the regime is based on the intimidation of people and the constant use of force. Anyone who promoted an idea like gun ownership by citizens in Putin’s Russia would not be able to enjoy the support and favour of the authorities, unlike Butina, whose projects were approved personally by Vladimir Putin. It seems that Butina’s legend was prepared specifically to deceive the Russian opposition and visiting Americans. But she suddenly became so successful in her work and her communication with Paul Erickson became so close that the intelligence services decided to try their luck in the United States, believing that American conservatives were not familiar with the political situation in Russia, and so wouldn’t notice the inconsistencies in Butina’s story. However, it appears no one taught her how to run secure communications or detect surveillance — the basic skills of a spy working abroad. Akif Gasanov suggests that Butina’s supervisors themselves did not expect such success, and the operative with whom Butina maintained contact was not suitable to run an operation like this.
  3. Let’s recall that the document Butina kept at home was about working for the FSB, and not the SVR. At the same time, Maria clearly had experience in networking and cultivating trust, although she clearly did not receive any special training for working abroad.

Risk factor

If the above assumptions are correct, it means that Maria Butina is an amateur in the field of foreign espionage, although she may have been a fairly experienced counterintelligence agent. A reasonable question arises: how many more ‘assets’ are the Russian intelligence services selecting from among informers or, even worse, ordinary people and sending abroad?

Akif Gasanov suggests that the FSB has sent other people like her, hoping “for random luck” in gaining access and information. If she was just one of many and was supposed to be used only to identify targets, it’s clear why she was not only poorly trained, but was also not given a qualified handler,” argues Gasanov.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Russians may be recruited while they are already living abroad. At the same time, it is not at all necessary that the newly-created agents have any previous intelligence experience.
At the beginning of November of last year, British media reported that half of the Russian diaspora in the UK are informers for the Russian intelligence services (SVR, GRU, and even the FSB). This ‘sensation’ was based on the misinterpretation of a report from the British think tank Henry Jackson Society about the scale of Russian espionage. In fact, the report, citing sources in the intelligence community, gives more modest numbers: about 500 agents led by 200 curators. However, Russian émigrés who spoke to the author of the report, Professor Andrew Foxall, suggested that every second compatriot could potentially turn out to be secretly working for Russian intelligence.

The reason for this suspicion among Russian emigrants is that members of the diaspora who oppose the Putin regime perceive visits by their compatriots to their home country as a “risk factor”. Some defectors among former Russian foreign intelligence officers agree, noting that the Russian authorities have an effective way to pressure emigrants if they have businesses or family in Russia. So if a Russian goes home for a visit, FSB officers may ask them questions, and he or she will not dare not answer them. According to the emigrants themselves, up to half of Russians abroad, especially those who are out of the country temporarily, and only for the purpose of making money, are in such a potential risk zone.

Pros and cons of using amateurs

Recruiting people this way has certain advantages. Western intelligence agencies cannot track the contacts of Russian intelligence with people during trips to Russia, so they can do their work unnoticed by Western counterintelligence for a long time. These people are not personnel, so the risk of their exposure by defectors is minimized. The Russian intelligence services can communicate with these people via proxies, and they only pass on answers to questions, rather than being involved in complicated operations.

The information that Russian intelligence needs from expats is most often related to their life and work abroad and the contacts they’ve made, without any connection to intelligence work. Amateurs are rarely entrusted with special operations. So there may be no visible changes in the life of such an informant, and it is very difficult to understand at what point their contact with the intelligence services took place and at what level it was carried out.
If we take into account the high level of support for Vladimir Putin in the Russian diaspora and a large number of intermediate forms of relations with the Kremlin — pro-Kremlin organizations, propagandists and agents of influence — it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between ordinary people and intelligence agents. At the same time, the majority of people who are in the risk group may never meet intelligence officers, some may never have more than a banal “political talk” and give formal answers to a couple of questions, and only a small part of that group is able to evolve into full-fledged spies over time. Again, tracing an evolution like this is very difficult.

However, there are tangible disadvantages to working with amateurs. Let’s recall that even the relatively experienced ‘agent’ Maria Butina, according to the American media, boasted about her connections with Russian intelligence when she was intoxicated. Ordinary people find it difficult to hide their excitement when the ‘romantic’ world of espionage bursts into their lives. In addition, dilettantes inevitably make mistakes: they begin to overly actively contact people and collect information that they were not interested in before, they can’t keep their lies straight, or, as is in Butina’s case, their story just doesn’t stack up with the realities of life in Russia. Their income level, behaviour and interests can change dramatically, and this too attracts attention. At the same time, if they make high-level connections, sooner or later they will come on to the radar of counterintelligence, and then their mistakes become catastrophic.

Actively involving ordinary people in the government’s malign activities is a normal tactic for totalitarian states, and Maria Butina is most likely far from an isolated case. Unfortunately, the opportunity to enter the mysterious world of the ‘big game’ is tempting for many people, especially those brought up on Russian propaganda with its cynicism and constant discourse on geopolitics. However, these thrill seekers should bear in mind that the state sees them as disposable and can easily sacrifice them at any time.