Maria Butina has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. The 30 year-old Russian gun rights enthusiast was arrested in July 2018 after FBI agents observed her packing boxes and preparing to leave the country. She pleaded guilty in December, admitting to developing contacts in GOP political circles, such as the NRA, and using those contacts to influence US-Russia relations, according to CNN.
The Department of Justice announcement of Butina’s sentencing states that under the direction of a Russian government official “she provided key information about Americans who were in a position to influence United States politics and took steps to establish an unofficial line of communication between Russia and these Americans. As described in the plea documents, Butina sought to do so for the benefit of the Russian Federation. She took these actions without providing the required notifications to the Attorney General that she was in fact acting as an agent of the Russian Federation.”
As part of her plea agreement, she has cooperated with the government, providing information about her American boyfriend, Paul Erickson, according to The Daily Beast. Erickson, a GOP political operative, has not been charged in connection with Butina’s case. She posed as a college student, attending American University in Washington with Erickson’s help and used his GOP connections to infiltrate GOP circles.
Butina’s attorneys argued that she was a “genuine idealist” and simply wanted to help improve relations between Russia and the US. They downplayed the government’s concern about the dinners Butina organized to draw out information from influential Americans, CNN reports. Alfred Carry, attorney for Butina, called the dinners “cultural exchanges” and said they were “where people including artists and philanthropists gathered and “talked about peace”.”
In court today, Maria spoke for about five minutes as she asked forgiveness, per CNN. “I deeply regret this crime. Ironically it has harmed my attempts to improve relationships between the two countries. I came to the US not under orders but with hope. I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country that I grew to love. Never did I wish to hurt anyone,” she said. She further expressed her dream to return to the US, saying, “I still hold a whisper in my heart to one day return to this country, but I know this wish is only a dream.”
The Daily Beast reports that the prosecution made a case for Butina, while not being a spy in the traditional sense, being a part of a spot-and-assess operation. A memo from the former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, Robert Anderson, detailed how Butina’s focus “specifically on Americans with political influence and Americans who had access, or were expected to acquire access, to the incoming presidential administration” could enable the Kremlin “to use this information for years to come in their efforts to spot and assess Americans who may be susceptible to recruitment as foreign intelligence assets.”
The government also stated that Butina claimed to have had consulted with the Kremlin, via Alexander Torshin, regarding President Trump’s decision on choosing his Secretary of State.
Judge Tanya S. Chutkan agreed with the prosecution, calling Butina’s work on behalf of Russia “sophisticated” and dangerous ” and pointing out that her actions occurred as Russia was interfering in a US presidential election. She said, “This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student. The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations.”
Butina will receive credit for the nine months she has already served and be deported back to Russia after she is released. Per the Daily Beast, she has asked for prompt deportation, stating she does not fear torture or persecution when she returns.