Russian ministry launches online drive to free 'spy' held by US

Federal prosecutors say the 29-year-old Maria Butina tried to infiltrate political organisations and influence politicians while living in Washington on a student visa.
Federal prosecutors say the 29-year-old Maria Butina tried to infiltrate political organisations and influence politicians while living in Washington on a student visa. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Russia's Foreign Ministry has begun a social media campaign calling for the release of Maria Butina, whom US prosecutors accused last week of acting as a covert Russian agent.

Federal prosecutors say the 29-year-old Butina tried to infiltrate political organisations and influence politicians while living in Washington on a student visa. Russia has denied the allegations.

Moscow is using its formidable social media apparatus to press for her release. The Foreign Ministry posted a call to action on its Twitter account last Thursday, declaring it was mobilising a digital "flash mob" in support of Butina and urging supporters to change their profile pictures to that of Butina.

A similar message was posted to the ministry's Facebook page, and both accounts switched over to an image of Butina, her red hair blowing in the breeze. The accounts urged Russians to share messages under the #FreeMariaButina hashtag to voice their support.

Butina was indicted last Tuesday on charges of acting illegally as an agent of the Russian government and attempting to infiltrate Republican circles. She has been jailed while awaiting trial.

Russia has maintained its position that the charges against Butina were unsubstantiated.

An undated photo of Maria Butina at a rally in Russia. The 29-year-old Russian has been arrested in the US on suspicion of being an unregistered Russian agent.
An undated photo of Maria Butina at a rally in Russia. The 29-year-old Russian has been arrested in the US on suspicion of being an unregistered Russian agent. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"As we know, Maria Butina has been in the United States for a long time as a student at a university in Washington, and she has not been hiding from anybody," Ms Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman, said at a news conference last Wednesday.

She criticised the US for the timing of Butina's arrest and for the indictment of 12 Russians before last Monday's summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"As we understand it, the order came from those who continue to stir up Russophobic hysteria."

Soon, Russian diplomats were joining the call to action.

"One more Russian was arrested in the US without any plausible reason," Russia's first deputy permanent representative at the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy wrote on Twitter. "We demand her immediate release." The Russian Mission to the United Nations also changed its profile photo.

Some other Russians shared messages of support on the hashtag. But many Twitter users poked fun at attempts by the Russian ministry to influence the conversation.

The Russian Embassy in Washington said diplomats visited Butina last Thursday. In a Facebook post, the embassy reported Butina was in good spirits.

"We told Maria her case caused a public outcry in Russia and people send her words of solidarity," the post read. "She asked to tell her parents not to worry."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 22, 2018, with the headline 'Russian ministry launches online drive to free 'spy' held by US'. Print Edition | Subscribe