Whether for real-world CIA handlers or fictional 007s, there is no tactic in spycraft more enduring than the honeypot. And so in the Old Testament, we saw the Philistines deploy Delilah’s feminine wiles to undermine Samson, and in the 1980s, we had Clayton Lonetree, the U.S. Marine blackmailed in Moscow by a beautiful Soviet. And now we have Maria Butina, allegedly the latest in a long history of double-crossing women whose success depends on how much more they understand men than their marks understand women.
Spend time scrolling through Butina’s social media presence and certain themes emerge. Her Instagram is a series of strategic fitness selfies showcasing both strength and femininity. She cooked homey-looking recipes: baked chicken, scrambled eggs. She posted dog-whistle appeals to lonely men: “I want to love someone whose heart has been broken, so that he knows exactly how it feels and won’t break mine.”
And she posted guns. In picture after picture, Butina holds firearms of all shapes and sizes. Here, she brandishes a handgun and wears a cowboy hat. There, she crouches in the snow, leaning a rifle over a dead boar. Do wingtipped eyeliner and bombshell-red lipstick pair well with semi-automatic weapons? On Butina’s Facebook feed they do.
Whether Butina is actually a Russian spy — she’s been charged with being an unregistered Russian agent — what becomes clear is that she was very good at being an American fantasy. While Cold War buffs spent the past week talking about how Butina was reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence in “Red Sparrow” or Keri Russell in “The Americans,” the pop-culture reference I kept thinking of was author Gillian Flynn’s description of a “Cool Girl.”
The concept was a major theme in Flynn’s novel, “Gone Girl” — which is itself essentially a deep dive into the relationship equivalent of spycraft: the personas some women adopt to please men, and the boyfriends who buy into it. Cool Girls might package themselves in different formats for different types of guys, i.e. sports bros, earnest freegans, “Star Wars” cosplayers.
If there were boyfriends in Butina’s life, or dates, or parties or nightclubs, they weren’t a part of her online personality. In her photos she is almost always alone, like a Realtor’s open house left purposefully devoid of furniture so prospective buyers could imagine themselves living there. If court records hadn’t revealed Butina to be flesh and blood, I would have looked at her Facebook feed and assumed she was a bot or a scammer.
Are there women with personalities like this in real life? Maybe. But is there a surfeit of intelligent, hot, bilingual Eastern European graduate students who love Jesus, cooking, guns, hunting, bourbon, lipstick, cowboys, and tenderly repairing the hearts of damaged men?
The men who championed her were so pleased to meet a woman who fit an ideal mold, they never stopped to think that maybe she was an ideal mole. Or, as one jokester observed on Twitter: “Such a shame that good guys with guns are powerless against bad guys with vaginas.”
This is why the honeypot scheme continues to be a thing. Because it’s based on an ego-stroking fantasy, a form of currency that never goes out of style.
The sexy narrative of Butina is that she’s a devious femme fatale. But her maneuvering through Second Amendment circles revealed as much about her marks’ desires as it did about her own plotting. Butina was NRA Cool Girl. Her Russian compatriots might have hacked into servers and political databases. She learned to hack the American psyche.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post.