A Russian gun rights enthusiast who built a network of powerful Republican contacts under the direction of a Kremlin power broker was ordered held without bond on Wednesday, after FBI counterintelligence agents accused her of conspiring to infiltrate the US government.
Maria Butina, 29, exploited her close links with the National Rifle Association (NRA) while posing as a visiting graduate student to endear herself with senior Republicans, guided by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s major political supporters, Alexander Torshin, US prosecutors said.
Butina was charged in the Washington federal court with acting illegally as an unregistered agent for the Russian government while she lived in Washington over the past three years with her boyfriend, a veteran Republican operative.
Photo: Reuters / FBI
They called Butina a “covert Russian agent” who maintained contacts with Russian spies and pursued a mission “to penetrate the US national decisionmaking apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian federation.”
That included offering sex to get a job in a US lobbying group, according to documents filed in court by the US Department of Justice.
Butina pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering and acting as a foreign agent.
“This is not a spy case,” her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, said. “The government is speculating that someone is a Russian spy, but thousands of Russians met intelligence operatives [in the US].”
The arrest was announced on Monday hours after US President Donald Trump finished a summit and a news conference with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump rejected the US intelligence community’s verdict that the Russians meddled to support him in the 2016 presidential race.
FBI agents described a long-term operation stretching back as far as 2011, when Torshin met then-NRA president David Keene and Butina launched a mirror Russian gun rights group named The Right to Bear Arms.
She befriended the Republican operative, unnamed in the indictment, but widely identified as Paul Erickson, 56, who opened doors to NRA and Republican circles.
Butina began visiting the US, was regularly hosted by the NRA and other groups, and became a “life member” of the US gun rights lobby.
Photographs of her meeting prominent Republican governors and representatives, as well as the powerful leaders of the NRA, are splashed across her social media.
In July 2015, Butina was selected to ask Trump a question about his plans for ties with Russia at a rally in Las Vegas.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin... I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” he said, in possibly his first campaign trail pronouncement on the issue.
Her activities ramped up after she moved to Washington on a student visa in 2016, attending graduate school at American University while she lived with Erickson.
She told colleagues at the school that she had a nearly direct line to Putin, and helped arrange visits by Torshin and other Russian officials to major political events such as the National Prayer Breakfast, as they sought to construct a “back channel” with sympathetic, influential Americans.
Erickson, citing his Russian connections, tried to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump in early 2016, and that year, Butina reportedly met Donald Trump Jr at a private dinner in Louisville, Kentucky, during the NRA annual convention.
The FBI’s investigation of Butina began before the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The indictment did not involve Mueller’s team.
However, the two investigations clearly overlapped, and Butina has already been interviewed by the US Senate committee studying Russian meddling.
Moscow said the arrest was a political move seeking to undermine the gains of the Helsinki summit.
“This happened with the obvious task of minimizing the positive effect” of the Trump-Putin meeting, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “There is an impression the FBI is simply carrying out a clearly political order.”
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