Where Things Stand: Maria Butina’s Bizarre Sign-Of-Life Interview Is Riddled With Kremlin Propaganda

This is your TPM evening briefing.

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on this character.

Convicted Russian spy Maria Butina just did a bizarre and rather concerning interview with the BBC in which she argued that Ukraine is “bombing” its own civilians and pushed Kremlin talking points that President Vlodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors, is a Nazi.

The interview honestly sounds like a confused hostage video. I’ll get into the details more below. But since serving 15 months in U.S. prisons after being convicted of working as an unregistered foreign agent — for attempting to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and after admitting to helping set up a Russian backchannel for conservative strategists ahead of the 2016 election — Butina returned to Russia in 2019. And she’s a politician now — apparently a fairly successful one. Butina became a member of the Russian parliament’s lower chamber in 2021 and has batted away accusations that President Putin helped hand her the position as a “reward” for her criminal endeavors in the U.S.

“It’s not a reward,” she told the New York Times in November 2021. “I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t working for the government. I was just a civilian.”

Since joining Russia’s parliament, Butina has used her platform to “to cast herself as an expert on both America and penal systems,” in the Times words. She also reportedly had a hand in writing President Putin’s recent media censorship law — the very law that prompted the New York Times and other Western media outlets to pull their correspondents out of Russia in recent days. The law essentially criminalizes any reporting on Russia’s war on Ukraine that veers from the Kremlin’s framing of events, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

She is using her time wisely.

Butina spoke with the BBC in the interview published today and argued that she hasn’t seen any evidence that suggests Russia is bombing Ukrainian civilians despite an ongoing onslaught of photo and video evidence, much of it verified by government and independent experts, and media reports from journalists in Ukraine that very much prove otherwise.

“We have tons of evidence Russian army does not bomb civilian population. … We just don’t do it,” she said. “Russians just don’t do it.”

“Russia is not bombing civilians, Russian military troops actually having humanitarian corridors,” she said, adding that, “In my region, we helped people evacuating from Donbas.”

The BBC interviewer pushed back, asking Butina if she actually believes that Ukraine is, in fact, bombing and killing its own people. “I hope not … I hope no one in the world can bomb their own population,” she responded, before arguing that “according to his actions,” Zelensky is “absolutely” a Nazi.

“You know I do believe that Nazism is not about just one nation, it’s about killing, murdering, torturing, alienation, based on their race, their gender, their nationality, country of origin and what we see today,” she said.

Both arguments have clear ties to the Kremlin’s official defense of its bloody actions in Ukraine. In the days and hours before declaring war on the country two weeks ago, Putin justified the offensive by arguing he was working to “denazify” the Ukrainian government — an addled claim for numerous reasons, including, most obviously, Zelensky’s heritage. While it is unclear why or how Butina believes that Russia is not the nation responsible for bombing cities in Ukraine, her statement mimics Putin’s initial claims about the invasion, and similar claims echoed by others in his government about a Ukraine-orchestrated “genocide.” Following its first attacks on the country late last month, Russia’s defense ministry claimed the Russian military had no intentions of targeting Ukrainian cities or civilians. That argument has, of course, proven to be as false as the rest of the country’s propaganda.

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