Frequent jailhouse visits by Russian diplomats to two Russian nationals detained in the United States are raising questions about whether the Kremlin is trying to interfere in the high-profile cases of alleged cyber and political meddling.
The two figures are Maria Butina, an alleged Russian operative who befriended National Rifle Association officials and people close to Donald Trump, and Yevgeniy Nikulin, a Russian hacker extradited from the Czech Republic earlier this year and currently under psychiatric examination in a San Francisco-area jail.
Russian officials have visited Butina six times since her arrest in mid July, U.S. prosecutors say. Nikulin’s attorney said Russian officials have visited the hacker multiple times at a Bay Area facility and have been “extremely active” in monitoring the case. He said he did not know the exact number of visits.
The Kremlin may be seeking to pressure the jailed Russians or learn the scope of U.S. criminal investigations into their activities, several former U.S. national security officials say.
“They are clearly worried and want to make sure that the people are not talking, and put pressure to release them,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years in the CIA serving in Moscow and running the agency’s Russia operations.
Other former officials say the Kremlin may simply be signaling displeasure with the arrests or exercising a right that the 1963 Vienna Convention granted to all diplomats and that is used often by U.S. consular personnel.
In a Sept. 7 court filing, U.S. attorney Jessie K. Liu said the frequent Russian consular visits to Butina, a 29-year-old who arrived in the United States in 2016, conveyed her importance to the Kremlin.
“The actions of the Russian Federation and its officials toward the defendant have confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government,” Liu wrote.
Sputnik, a Kremlin-run television network that posted a video of one jail visit, said the consular visits would continue “not less than once a week to make sure that the Russian national gets proper legal assistance and that rules of international law are respected.”
Butina is charged with being an in-plain-sight Russian agent who tried to sway U.S. politics by mingling with – and hosting in Russia — senior NRA officials.
An FBI affidavit, which was released upon Butina’s indictment on charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of Russia, alleges she cultivated relationships with Republican political figures on orders from a Russian official widely believed to be Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
Butina is held in a Washington area detention facility.
Czech authorities arrested Nikulin in October 2016, sparking a tug-of-war between Moscow and Washington over his extradition. U.S. officials won. Nikulin, 30, was extradited in late March on charges stemming from the 2012 hacks of three Internet companies, LinkedIn, Dropbox and Formspring.
Bloomberg News reported last month that prosecutors also want to find out what, if anything, Nikulin knows about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. U.S. prosecutors in San Francisco declined to comment to McClatchy.
Arkady Bukh, Nikulin’s New York attorney, who has represented dozens of Russian citizens jailed in the United States, said Russian officials were “extremely active at the beginning of the case” once Nikulin was booked into a detention facility in Alameda County, California, March 30.
“I know that there were a few visits,” he said, noting that most of his Russian clients receive only one visit. “That’s where the concern is coming.”
Bukh said he couldn’t speculate on the motive of the Russian consular visits to Nikulin but noted they came in the same month as “activities such as Skripal” – a reference to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, in Salisbury, England, in March, just as the Czech Republic extradited Nikulin to the United States.. Britain has accused two Russian intelligence officers of carrying out the nerve agent attack. Both Skripal and his daughter survived, although a British woman’s death has been linked to the attack.
Nikulin acted so violently in his first days under detention that U.S. marshals shackled him during further court proceedings.
“He pulled out the fire sprinkler system in his cell on the 20th floor,” Deputy U.S. Marshal Tyson Polski wrote on April 3, according to a court filing in the case.. “He is trashing his cell by throwing wadded wet paper at the ceiling to make it stick to the ceiling. He attempted to assault one of our deputies at the hospital on Friday when we were getting him medically cleared.”
Nikulin’s subsequent erratic behavior led to an ongoing psychiatric evaluation to see if he is mentally competent to stand trial.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington referred McClatchy to recent statements in which the Kremlin denounced U.S. media for labeling Butina a “spy” when she hasn’t been charged with espionage and accused federal prosecutors pursuing her conviction of “neo-McCarthyism.”
Counting consular visits to Butina’s jail is “totally uncalled for,” said the Sept. 10 statement posted on Facebook. “Maria is not the only Russian citizen. We understand that such visits are irritating, as they help us to receive first-hand information on violations of basic human rights.”
As for Nikulin, a Sept. 4 Facebook post said any deterioration in his mental capacity “falls on the U.S. authorities,” whom the Kremlin accused of trying to “psychologically break” Nikulin during his incarceration in Prague.
Former national security officials said the Russian consular visits could serve a variety of purposes, lawful or nefarious.
“Either what’s going on here is legitimate or there’s a legitimate cover for what’s going on here,” said Todd Hinnen, a former chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “If an incarcerated individual were a source or a member of a foreign intelligence service or had information that a foreign intelligence official didn’t want released, you could imagine such visits having a counterintelligence purpose like coordinating defense of a case,”
Those could include “coaching the individual as a witness or ensuring through threat or encouragement that the defendant maintains their cover and doesn’t reveal anything that would be harmful to their home government,” he said.
But Steve Hall, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia desk, noted that jails frequently record conversations between prisoners and their visitors.
“If you assume that the Russians that are doing consular visits are perhaps intelligence officers as well or have intelligence responsibilities, those people are going to know that anytime you’re inside a prison, you’re not going to have much privacy,” Hall said. “I don’t think there would be any sensitive conversations.”
Unspoken messages – even subtle threats – still can be conveyed, he said.
“It’s Russia, so yeah, anytime they want to intimidate somebody, there is no sense of personal rights. They’re looking out for the interest of Vladimir Putin.”
Arrests such as the Czech government’s apprehension of Nikulin “really, really, really make them mad,” Hall said.
He said it’s hard to tell if the Russian attention to cases such as Nikulin’s are to register protest of his international arrest “or are they afraid that this guy is an intelligence asset of theirs who was involved in state-sponsored hacking, and they want to make sure he doesn’t spill the beans.”
Another former CIA officer, who uses the pseudonym Alex Z. Finley, told McClatchy in an email that Nikulin’s recounting of what U.S. officials are asking him might prove helpful to Russian officials: “Even walking them through the exact circumstances of his arrest (for example, maybe his actions and contacts leading up to it), those are all things that would help the Russians know what the Americans and Czechs already know.”
U.S. diplomatic personnel frequently tend to jailed Americans overseas under the conventions, and some cases have become diplomatic flashpoints.
One explosive example involved Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who killed two men in Lahore, Pakistan, in early 2011. The U.S. government said the victims were armed, and that Davis was covered by diplomatic immunity. Pakistan charged him with a double murder.
Widespread street protests erupted. But Davis was released two months later after the U.S. government paid the families of the deceased $1.4 million in what local media described as “blood money.”