Maria Butina is sitting alone in a cell in a federal prison in Alexandria, Va., awaiting trial for charges that she failed to register as a foreign agent. The 29-year-old Russian exchange student has been compared to the Russian sleeper agent Anna Chapman, who was arrested in 2010, but her case bears even more similarity to earlier dramas.
An FBI affidavit accuses Butina of trying to establish “back channels” that would allow the Russian government to influence American politicians and government officials. The accusations evoke memories of the Cold War — and of a period when “back channel” was not a pejorative term, as the U.S. and Soviet governments leaned on journalists, undercover spies and private individuals to carry messages between the White House and the Kremlin.
But just because back channels were more accepted at that time, that doesn’t mean they were a good idea. Two back channels that operated in Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis — which we now know about thanks to since-declassified files and the writings of those who were involved — illustrate the potential benefits, as well as the perils, of using individuals with ties to foreign intelligence services to sidestep official channels.
One of the back channels that carried messages between the Kremlin and the White House during the face-off in the Caribbean was established a decade earlier, in the spring of 1951, when Frank Holeman, Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News, befriended a young, charming Russian journalist named Georgi Bolshakov. Bolshakov, an officer in the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence agency, was posing as a reporter for TASS, a Soviet news agency.
Vice President Richard Nixon, a friend of Holeman’s, encouraged the relationship. He knew he could use Holeman to send and receive messages to Bolshakov, whom he understood was in touch with the Kremlin. When Bolshakov’s TASS posting finished in 1955, he kept the back channel alive by introducing Holeman to another GRU officer who worked in the Soviet embassy. Holeman and his GRU counterpart relayed messages between Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in 1958 that helped diffuse superpower tensions over Soviet attempts to take over West Berlin, even as many officials in Washington and Moscow feared those developments would spark World War III. The back channel also smoothed the path for Nixon to travel to Moscow, where he debated Nikita Khrushchev in front of television cameras.