The father of a glamorous Russian convicted of conspiring against the US has pleaded for her return amid hopes of a possible Cold War-style spy swap with a British security expert being held in Russia.
Diplomats believe Russia may try to secure the release of Maria Butina – who has been likened to flame-haired Russian spy Anna Chapman – with an exchange with Paul Whelan.
He was seized in Moscow on December 28, accused of obtaining state secrets.
Butina, 30, pleaded guilty last month in a US court to conspiracy to act as a Kremlin agent by infiltrating conservative movements in the US. She is currently in a detention centre awaiting sentence.
Diplomats believe Russia may try to secure the release of Maria Butina (pictured) with an exchange with a British security expert being held in Russia
Her father, Valery Butin, a businessman from Siberia, fears discussing an exchange with Mr Whelan could damage her chances of returning home.
Talking from the family home in Barnaul last night, Mr Butin, 56, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I just want her to come back home.’
On a possible swap, he said: ‘I do not want to discuss it. It may cause harm [to my daughter].’
But Mr Butin believes such an exchange is possible, saying he wanted both the US and Russia ‘to make clear their official positions’ on his daughter’s case.
‘I am not going to comment or discuss anything on Whelan’s arrest,’ he said. ‘I don’t myself see the connection between Whelan’s arrest and the exchange yet I know that this is the practice.’
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned Moscow against using Mr Whelan as a ‘pawn in diplomatic chess games’.
Paul Whelan was seized in Moscow on December 28, accused of obtaining state secrets
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov yesterday shrugged off suggestions of a spy-swap, saying that Mr Whelan had not even been charged.
‘As to the possibility of exchanges of one sort of another, it’s impossible and incorrect to consider the question now when an official charge hasn’t even been presented,’ he said.
After her detention by US authorities last July, Butina, known as Masha, received a supportive message in Russian from Chapman, 36, who was part of a spy swap in 2010 which brought double agent Sergei Skripal to Britain.
Chapman posted a picture of herself on Instagram with the message: ‘Hold on Masha!’
Butina is said to have acted as a pro-gun campaigner in the US, using her role to infiltrate powerful circles in Washington on behalf of Russian intelligence.
In 2011 she was involved in youth election primaries for United Russia, which was then closely associated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The same year she became chairman of a public organisation called ‘Right to bear arms’.
While still studying, she became an assistant to ex-Russian senator Alexander Torshin, 65, later deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank, who was implicated in the US allegations against her.
In April 2015 she travelled with Torshin to Tennessee to attend a fundraiser for a Republican political group.
In July the same year she attended one of Donald Trump’s first campaign events.
Russian espionage expert Gennady Sokolov last night told The Mail on Sunday that a spy swap was unlikely.
‘Butina is expected to be freed quite soon due to the agreement she reached with US prosecutors,’ he said. ‘So I don’t see any connection between the two cases or a possible exchange.’