A tantalizing chapter in Russia’s efforts to collect intelligence on American politics came to a close on Friday as a woman who worked as a covert agent was released from prison to be returned to her home country.
Maria Butina, a gun rights activist who sought to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups and promote Russia’s agenda around the time that Donald Trump rose to power, left a low-security facility in Tallahassee, Florida and boarded a plane home to Moscow. She had been in custody since her arrest in July 2018.
Butina, a former American University graduate student, pleaded guilty last December to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Russia. She admitted that she and a former Russian lawmaker worked to leverage contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American conservatives during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
She violated U.S. law because she did not report those efforts to the Justice Department, which requires the registration of lobbyists and others in the U.S. who do the bidding of foreign governments. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison but received credit for time already served.
Her lawyers said Friday that she was not a spy and that the case had nothing to do with espionage or election interference. They cast the crime as more technical than substantive.
“As the government acknowledged, all of her activity in the United States was, in and of itself, legal but for her failure to file a notice with the Attorney General, an obligation prosecutors acknowledged she was unaware of,” her attorneys, Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry, said in a statement. “For violating this notice requirement, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced.”
The Butina case captivated public attention because it unfolded around the same time as special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, even though the two probes were entirely separate. It also led to scrutiny of the political dealings of the powerful NRA and underscored the variety of tools at Russia’s disposal as it looks to gain a foothold in American institutions.
A report last month from Sen. Ron Wyden , an Oregon Democrat, alleged that the NRA acted as a “foreign asset” for Russia in the run-up to the election, and that NRA insiders provided access to the American political system to advance personal business interests. The report said the NRA had “engaged in a yearslong effort to facilitate the U.S.-based activities of Butina and Alexander Torshin, the former lawmaker.
The NRA called the report “politically motivated and contrived.”
Butina has contended that she was not a spy and that her actions took place out in the open. Her lawyers have said that she was simply a student interested in American politics and better U.S.-Russian relations.
“I love both countries, and I was building peace,” Butina said in an interview with NPR last spring. In the same interview, she said she knew that Torshin was providing the information she gathered to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She said that she was honored to help and believed that her notes and analysis would be valuable to Russian officials.
Butina also said in the NPR interview that has no concerns about returning to Russia because people who know her “know as a matter of fact that I am not a spy nor do I have any secret information.”
“I don’t think I have any problems or I could have any concerns about my safety,” she said. “I don’t see that happening.”
The case was separate from Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, and Butina has said she knew nothing about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential election.
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