Russian national Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months by a federal judge in D.C. for conspiracy to act as foreign agent. She will get credit for the nine months she has been incarcerated after her arrest.
“This case is not simply about failing to notify the attorney general,” U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said at the sentencing hearing. It is because Butina did not register as a foreign agent, Chuktan said, that made her conduct so “dangerous” and a “threat” to “our democratic institutions.”
Butina was arrested in July 2018 and charged with failure to register as a foreign agent and conspiracy. The government alleged that she used gun rights activism to infiltrate conservative political circles. She pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count in December and has been cooperating with the government ever since.
In her remarks to the judge, Butina expressed remorse, and said she regretted the harm her conduct has caused not only herself but also the United States, a country she said she greatly admired. She said that the U.S. had always been “kind” to her and that she never meant to harm it.
“If I had known to register as a foreign agent, I would have done without delay,” she said, her voice sometimes shaky as she appeared to choke back tears.
Prosecutors have called her assistance “substantial” but nonetheless sought the 18 month sentence. Her lawyers argued that she be released immediately, having been in jail since her arrest. Both parties agreed to a swift deportation once she completed her sentence — an order that the judge approved.
In its sentencing memo, prosecutors claimed Butina’s actions were part of a so-called “spot and assess” operation, where in Butina was providing the Russian government with information it could later use to recruit susceptible targets.
Her lawyers have denied that her conduct was “nefarious,” even while conceding she should have registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. They claimed she was merely interested in improving U.S.-Russia relations.
Regardless, she was able to use her connections to the gun rights movement — and particularly to the NRA — to gain access to top figures in Republican politics, including multiple candidates in the 2016 presidential race. She even asked then-candidate Donald Trump a question at a 2015 town hall.
The case revealed that Butina had plotted her efforts with Alexander Torshin, a Russian who has served in the Russian government and helped Butina organize an NRA trip to Moscow. She had also started dating GOP operative Paul Erickson, who has since been indicted for fraud.
Erik Kenerson — a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C., which was prosecuting Butina’s case — said Friday that, through her efforts to establish a backchannel of communications to the Russian government, Butina was able to pass back information of “extreme importance” to the Russian Federation.
This information posed “serious potential harms” to the American political process, Kenerson said.
While Butina was not passing along classified information, and she may not have known how it would be used, she “knew that some of the information was going to the Russian government writ large,” Kenerson said, and that Torshin was a “conduit” to the Russian government.
By failing to register, Butina deprived the United States and American University — were she obtained a graduate degree before her arrest — the ability to make a decision on whether to admit her, Kenerson said. Her failure to register also deprived individuals the ability to decide whether to meet with her, Kenerson argued.
This case showed how “easy” it was for a foreign government to target the United States, Kenerson said.
Her attorney, Alfred Carry also made remarks to the judge during the sentencing that painted Butina as an ambitious young woman who “wanted to fit in both worlds” — the United States and Russia. She aspired to be the “go-to consultant” for U.S.-Russian relations. He argued that her gun rights activism was “sincere” and that such advocacy was an American “bedrock principle.”
Like Carry, Butina sought to characterize her conduct in the United States as being driven by admiration of America, rather than by a desire to undermine it.
She said she held a “whisper” in her “heart” that she might one day return to the United States, but that she knew it was only a “wish.”