Congress has introduced a bipartisan measure calling for the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since December. Still awaiting trial, Mr. Whelan is being held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the onetime KGB operative who also served for a time as director of the FSB security police, is probably enjoying the sweet irony of being on the receiving end of rare harmony between Democrats and Republicans.
Mr. Whelan sits in prison through no fault of his own. Mr. Putin is using him as a pawn in a Kremlin espionage chess match involving Maria Butina, the founder of Russian gun rights group Right to Bear Arms. Ms. Butina was arrested in July 2018 by U.S. authorities and accused of attempting to use the National Rifle Association and conservative religious organizations to create back-channel lines of communication between conservative Americans and Russian officials.
Ms. Butina is also nothing more than one of Mr. Putin’s pawns, who took on more personal risk than she likely ever understood or expected.
Mr. Putin holds a black belt in judo, a key principle of which is to use an opponent’s strength against them. Applying this judo technique to Russia’s strategic relationship with its stronger rival and primary adversary, the United States, Mr. Putin has targeted our open democratic institutions, the core of our strength as a nation, with discoverable influence operations.
With an extensive social media profile, Ms. Butina never sought to conceal her wide range of contacts, including with Alexander Torshin, a Kremlin insider and deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. She developed high-profile and conspicuous links to U.S. interest groups. Her social media postings, bank transactions and outreach on behalf of the Russian government were easily and deliberately discoverable.
Mr. Putin hoped to use Ms. Butina to soil Republicans’ reputation by making it appear as though the party was implicated in the Kremlin’s intrigues.
Ms. Butina was part of a broader Putin strategy of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from his influence operations on U.S. soil to the Kremlin. The Russian operatives who purchased advertisements on Facebook, for example, would have chosen a currency other than rubles had they wanted to conceal their identities.
Rather than use his own intelligence services, Putin outsourced Russia’s attacks on U.S. social media and networking sites to the Internet Research Agency, whose chief financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is better known as “Putin’s chef.”
The June 2016 Trump Tower meeting began with a barely concealed “poison pill” email from a British publicist. The Russians who attended the meeting all had ties to the Kremlin (and in one case to the FSB). There was no attempt to be secret about the meeting, especially given the ultra-high-profile venue. The meeting was specifically designed to put the Trump team on the defensive about alleged ties to Russia.
Ms. Butina carried a Kremlin virus designed to sow distrust in our institutions. Mr. Putin’s goal was to make Russia fodder for the acrimonious partisan bickering, producing political gridlock in Washington.
Mr. Putin will now hold Mr. Whelan until Ms. Butina is released. His goal is to create just enough proof that Russia was seeking to influence our political process to persuade some — but not all — Americans.
Key to Mr. Putin’s strategy is to make Ms. Butina appear to be a more accomplished agent than she in fact was. It will be all the better for Moscow if she is released simultaneously with Mr. Whelan, the victim of a classic KGB-style setup to make it appear he was engaged in espionage as well. Mr. Putin knows how to gaslight a conspiracy theory as well as anyone.
Mr. Putin is also concerned about Mr. Butina’s lengthy jail term. Leaving her behind enemy lines for a year and a half can be a disincentive for others to take risks on behalf of an ungrateful czar.
Mr. Putin’s Russia is not known for transparency or its respect for the rule of law. Mr. Whelan reportedly suffered a hernia but is being denied appropriate medical care behind bars. Mr. Putin likely welcomes U.S. protests on the prisoner’s behalf, calculating that there will be pressure on the U.S. side for more lenient treatment of Ms. Butina.
Other than granting Ms. Butina an early release, the Trump administration appears to have no leverage to ameliorate Mr. Whelan’s predicament. Russians have a saying: Svoya rubashka blizhe k telu — “Take care of yourself first.” Mr. Putin, who has steadfastly continued aggressive military, economic and espionage attacks in spite of crippling Western sanctions, has shown he has a high tolerance for collateral damage in his existential conflict with democracy.
⦁ Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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