Vladimir Putin
Credit: Remy Steinegger/Wikimedia Commons

The Russians obviously do not like it when their citizens are arrested and extradited to the United States. They don’t like it when their spies are arrested here and put in prison. But they don’t lose total control in those situations. Thanks to a provision in the 1963 Vienna Convention, diplomats are allowed to make prison visits to their citizens when they’re being held in foreign custody.  It’s a privilege the Russians are making full use of in the cases of computer hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin (who was sent here by the Czech authorities) and NRA-allied gun enthusiast Maria Butina.

It’s less the fact that diplomats have met with them to check on their treatment and well-being that is unusual than the frequency with which they’re visiting.

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…

…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.

Federal prosecutors have already noted in court papers how often Butina has been visited to demonstrate that they did not err when they represented her as of high significance to the Russian government.

The hacker Nikulin’s attorney recognizes that the situation with his client is unusual:

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.”

This behavior is so obvious that it’s a cliché we’ve seen portrayed in countless movies and television programs. A possible witness is visited by a mob associate (in prison or otherwise) and their mere presence does all the talking and performs all the intimidation necessary. That’s why it doesn’t matter that prison conversations are recorded. When Vladimir Putin sends someone to talk to you repeatedly while you’re cooling your heels in a cell block, that tells you that you better not cooperate and strongly suggests that you aren’t safe.

And if that kind of message isn’t sufficient, there’s the newspapers:

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.

The case of Nikulin is probably the more urgent of the two for the Kremlin. Marcy Wheeler has discussed the various concerns Moscow may have, including that Nikulin could have been involved with Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague in late-August or early-September 2016 that was described in the Steele Dossier.

Arkady Bukh is behaving in an interesting manner. The Russians specifically requested that he take Nikulin on as a client, and early on he strongly suggested that his client would cooperate and seek a deal:

“The likelihood of a trial is not very high,” Bukh said. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where Nikulin’s trial would occur, “has over a 99 percent conviction rate. We are not throwing clients under the bus,” Bukh said.

But his client has not cooperated, and Bukh is concerned that the Russians managed to meet at least once with Nikulin while he was not present:

And Nikulin’s defense team — led by a New York-based attorney seasoned in representing Russians and Eastern Europeans charged with serious crimes in the U.S. — says Russian officials have shown unusually strong interest in his case, arranging at least once to visit him in jail when the attorneys weren’t present.

The lead attorney, Arkady Bukh, said he remains concerned, maybe ”paranoid,” over Nikulin’s safety after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned earlier this year in England with a nerve agent.

“They are very active, by far more active than any other case,” Bukh said of Russian embassy officials. “Now it’s less frequent, but earlier in the case they were calling almost every day. I have no duties to them. They’re not my client.”

Bukh hasn’t been able to get Nikulin to cooperate in his own defense. A member of the defense teams says when they meet with him he “just stares off blankly or starts laughing at very serious moments.”

Strangely, though, when the defense team sought an independent psychiatric evaluation of Nikulin, they picked someone with a “probationary status with the California Medical Board arising out of complaints of unprofessional conduct and gross negligence.” Apparently, the judge was not impressed.

There’s more than enough smoke and mirrors here for a classic spy thriller, but the most important thing remains that the Mueller team is highly interested in Nikulin’s possible role in the 2016 hacking operations. The Russians certainly act as though it’s critical that Nikulin remain silent. How else would you describe this kind of behavior?

The Russian government continues to show extraordinary interest in Nikulin, much to the consternation of his lawyers.

Another of Nikulin’s lawyers, Arkady Bukh, previously told CyberScoop that the Russian government was “extremely active” and that “they try to know anything and everything” about Nikulin.

According to Nechay, two representatives from the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. showed up unannounced at the lawyers’ office on June 7. After being repeatedly told Nechay was unavailable, the Russians had to be escorted off the premises.

“I am not sure what their motivations were, but these types of intimidation tactics are unacceptable and do not work with me,” Nechay told CyberScoop.

The Russians were certainly furious with the Czechs after Nikulin was extradited here in March. But they seem to have succeeded in preventing Nikulin from talking. They’re trying the same type of tactics with Maria Butina.

This doesn’t look like the ordinary kind of work diplomats do to look after the rights and health of their citizens who have been jailed abroad.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com