A federal judge sentenced Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina to 18 months in prison Friday after calling her plot to penetrate conservative U.S. political circles without disclosing she was working as a foreign agent for the Kremlin “dangerous” and “a threat to our democracy.”
Butina, 30, pleaded guilty in December to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association and other groups without registering with the U.S. Justice Department from 2015 until she was arrested and detained in July.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan of Washington credited Butina with the more than nine months she already has served in jail and granted a request to expedite her deportation after she completes her sentence.
Butina’s networking efforts, facilitation of a visit to Russia by NRA leaders, and other actions “were all used to establish back channel lines of communication to advance Russian interests. The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,” Chutkan said.
While possibly legal otherwise, it was because Butina failed to register with the U.S. Attorney General that her actions “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy,” by denying U.S. authorities and targeted groups the opportunity to respond “at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process,” the judge said.
Butina was the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence American policy in the run-up to the 2016 election, though her case was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s national security division, not by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
After the hearing, Robert Driscoll, one of Butina’s lawyers, said he “disagreed strongly” with the sentence and said the case had been marked from the start by “complete and utter Russophobia.”
Butina admitted to working as an undeclared agent of a foreign government, but she did not admit and was not charged with espionage.
In court, Butina said, “ignorance of the law is not an excuse, in the United States or in Russia, and so I humbly request forgiveness.”
She asked for a chance to go home, saying she had hoped for a career in international policy while studying at American University and to bolster her resume and build bridges between Russia and the U.S.
“The United States has always been kind to me, and though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret this crime,” said Butina, dressed in a green prison uniform and speaking clearly but emotionally. “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.”
In plea papers, Butina said she worked under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official, and with an American political operative on a multiyear scheme to establish unofficial lines of communications with Americans who could influence U.S. politics.
Butina was motivated by good intentions of improving political relations, her attorneys, . Driscoll and Alfred Carry, said. They added that she was remorseful and “has done everything she could to atone for her mistakes through cooperation and substantial assistance.”
Driscoll noted after the hearing that the judge referenced Russian interference in the 2016 election even though Butina was interviewed only once after her guilty plea by investigators working for Mueller. Her case does not appear anywhere in the 448-page redacted Mueller report published last week.
Driscoll also warned the government’s theory of the case would apply “broadly to a large number of people,” indicating that many non-Russian foreign nationals engage in similar activities as do Americans living abroad.
He said he hopes Butina will be released and will return to Russia as early as November.
At sentencing, Chutkan noted that Butina was a legitimate, hard-working graduate student, but added, “She was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system. She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government, under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government.”
Butina’s plan, which she called the “Diplomacy Project,” targeted the conservative movement, and gun rights groups in particular, as a way to reach the Republican winner of the 2016 election, who she correctly predicted would be Donald Trump, court filings show.
Butina laid out the proposal in March 2015. Over the next two years, citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party, she traveled to conferences to associate with Republican presidential candidates, hosted “friendship dinners” with wealthy Americans and organized a Russian delegation to attend the influential National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
She gained access to these groups by founding a gun rights group in Russia and serving as an interpreter for Torshin, a lifetime NRA member and a former Russian senator and deputy governor of the country’s central bank.
Though Butina was not a traditional spy or a trained intelligence officer, her work could be used to target politically powerful Americans for Kremlin recruitment later and was of “immense” value to the Russian Federation, lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson said.
While Butina’s actions “did not involve dead drops or spy tradecraft,” Kenerson said in court, they posed “serious potential harm to the U.S. political process, as well as foreign policy interests and nationals security,” by giving Russian intelligence agencies access to powerful individuals who could shape U.S. policy.
Court documents indicate Butina worked closely with a Republican Party consultant, with whom she had a romantic relationship after they met when he visited Moscow in 2013. He has been identified by government officials as Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP political adviser from South Dakota who managed the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan.
Erickson was indicted in February in South Dakota over what federal prosecutors said was an unrelated investment-fraud scheme. Erickson’s attorney, William Hurd, has said his client is a “good American” who “has never done anything to hurt our country and never would.”
“Maria Butina is a political prisoner, a victim of repressive #US justice norms and a provocation masterminded by the U.S. special services,” the Russian embassy said on its Twitter account. “We insist on our compatriot’s innocence. We demand her immediate release.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Spencer S. Hsu, Rosalind S. Helderman