A federal judge in Washington sentenced admitted Russian agent Maria Butina to 18 months in prison on Friday, April 26.
The Russian citizen expressed remorse for failing to register as a foreign agent and conspiring with a foreign official to influence American political organizations. Maria Butina pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Justice Department, facing up to 5 years in prison.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan ordered the 18-month sentence but added that the sentence would include the 9 months she has already served since her arrest in July 2018. In court, Butina said she was sorry that she “harmed the American people” by failing to register as a foreign agent and said she would have registered if she had known that was required, NPR reported.
Butina, a former graduate student at American University in Washington, stated, “For all the international scandal my arrest has caused, I feel ashamed and embarrassed. My parents taught me the virtue of higher education, how to live life lawfully, and how to be good and kind to others … I have three degrees, but now I’m a convicted felon with no job, no money and no freedom,” Reuters reported.
Butina admitted to conspiring with a Russian official, Alexander Torshin, who was a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank as well as two Americans from 2015 until her arrest in 2018. She worked with the individuals to attempt to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, an organization strongly aligned with American conservatives and Republican politicians including President Donald Trump. In fact, Trump addressed an NRA conference about an hour after Butina was sentenced today.
The criminal case against Maria Butina is separate from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, which detailed a series of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
Reuters previously reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who allegedly told people at parties in Washington that she could use her political connections to help them get jobs in his administration. Federal prosecutors concluded that while Butina did not engage in espionage, she did work at her own will behind-the-scenes in conservative political circles to establish ties and boost the U.S.-Russia relationship. This included actions such as attending events in Washington and New York to meet high-profile politicians and arranging dinners with them. Many of these events have been documented on Butina’s social media pages, which include photos of her attending NRA conferences and a high-profile annual prayer breakfast in Washington.
Butina’s lawyers have argued that her political activities were done in the open and were not conducted with any malfeasance, they said that her only crime was that she was unaware of the law and therefore, failed to notify the Justice Department, that she was working to influence public opinion in favor of Russia. Butina said on Friday: “If I had known to register as a foreign agent, I would have done so without delay … I just didn’t register because I didn’t know to.” The prosecutors, however, remarked that “this is not a registration offense … this is a case where the defendant acted in the United States as an agent of the Russian government.”
The case against Butina was from the beginning sensationalized by the press as a salacious example of Russian spycraft, linking it to the broader campaign of Russian infiltration into American politics. Federal prosecutors alleged initially that Maria Butina was a secret Russian agent that was offering sex to gain access to high-profile figures within the conservative movement, however, they later admitted they were wrong in that assumption that after misunderstanding various messages she sent to people. Butina was engaged in a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, who is facing separate charges of wire fraud and money laundering unrelated to Butina’s case. Butina has been in contact with Erickson since her arrest, but according to her lawyers, he has been uncertain as to the future of their relationship since Butina will be barred from entering the U.S. after she’s deported to Russia, the Washington Examiner reported.
After her arrest and interrogation throughout last year, the true story of Maria Butina has become less intriguing and less relevant for the press as no evidence has emerged that she was acting as part of some grand conspiracy involving Russia. According to court documents, “(She) was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country. She was not a trained intelligence officer.” And while the Mueller team did question Butina, the final report itself does not include this case, in the context of investigating the Trump campaign for collusion.
Today, the federal judge Tanya Chutkin said after handing down the sentence: “You are not the worst thing you’ve ever done. You are smart, hardworking. I wish you the best of luck” after Butina said that “I’ve destroyed my own life … now nothing remains.”
Reuters contributed to this report.