On Friday, April 26, Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison during an appearance at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, for acting as an agent of the Russian government without registering with the U.S. Justice Department.
The 30-year-old Russian gun rights advocate and her attorney sought to portray her activity for her home country as unwitting, not the work of a spy.
The judge presiding over the case, Tanya Chutkan, noted the sentence was “sufficient” to promote deterrence.
Butina will have 14 days to file an appeal and is set to be “promptly” deported to the Russian Federation on the completion of her sentence, contrary to the claims of some Russian figures.
The arguments of Butina and her attorney echoed statements made by Russian officials and state media over the past nine months.
Butina’s attorneys had attempted to paint their client as a “sincere” gun rights advocate and “straight ‘A’ student” at American University in Washington, DC -- a student who had fallen victim to “discrimination” and yet grown to love America. This ran contrary to her record, uncovered by Polygraph.info:
Noting her cooperation with U.S. authorities, the defense argued Butina had “unwittingly” broken the law in the United States, a country “she loves and admires,” but had never lied, acted as a spy, been employed by the Russian security services or acted as a proxy -- a claim also advanced by Russian officials:
“America is looking for enemies where they can find them,” her attorney Alfred Kerry said, adding that she was “no Manchurian candidate.”
Butina, who at times sounded tearful, said she had come to the U.S. “for a better life” and was seeking to “build bridges” between the U.S. and Russia, and that her biggest regret was that “instead of building peace,” she had “created discord.”
Appealing to her Christian faith and women’s role in society, Butina said she “hopes to one day return to America,” adding this “wish is only a dream” -- similar to the words in a Russian embassy tweet in December, covered by the Ukrainian journalism project, Stopfake.org:
The federal judge, Chutkan, appeared undeterred by Butina’s sometimes emotional appeal, noting that while U.S. law protects freedoms, “the rule of law means something.”
Chutkan cited a sentencing recommendation based on the opinion of Robert Anderson, the former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, who was retained by the U.S. government in connection with the case.
The memo states that from 2015 to 2017, Butina, in her capacity as a foreign agent, had “provided key information about Americans who were in a position to influence United States politics and took steps to establish an unofficial line of communication between Russia and these Americans.”
Anderson’s filing claimed that operations like Butina’s damage U.S. national security, “giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction.”
The memo noted that Butina was not a spy or intelligence officer “in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country,” but had acted on behalf of a Russia official “for the benefit of the Russian Federation,” potentially damaging the national security of the United States.
Butina’s attorneys appealed to the court to disregard Anderson’s statement, claiming it included novel or inconsistent theories. The judge rejected the reasoning.
In delivering her sentence, Chutkan cited Anderson’s memo, noting that the United States was “the primary target of malign Russian actions” and that Butina’s efforts to aid the Russian government has been “sophisticated.”
Chutkan said Butina had been able to establish contacts in the U.S. “because she did not register herself.”
“The offense is serious and jeopardized this country’s national security,” Chutkan said from the bench.
Butina initially pleaded guilty on December 13, 2018 and, as part of a plea deal, agreed to cooperate with investigators. Butina was facing a maximum of five years in prison and the prospect of deportation. Butina’s lawyers hoped the sentence of their client, who has spent over nine months in prison, would not exceed time served.
Butina was charged with conspiracy and working as an undeclared foreign agent of the Russian government when she was arrested in July 2018. Prosecutors allege she sought to cultivate ties with U.S. political groups and individuals -- primarily conservatives -- on behalf of Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank and a former Russian senator, whom Spanish investigators have linked to Russian mafia activity.
Torshin and Butina worked to establish a relationship between the National Rifle Association and a Russian analogue, which Butina set up in 2011 – “Right to Bear Arms.” That relationship was allegedly used as the springboard to establish a “backchannel” that, prosecutors wrote, “could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” In December, Polygraph.info fact checked President Putin’s claim:
Torshin, described by Butina’s lawyers as “a friend,” was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April along with other Russian businessmen and politicians for “advancing Russia’s malign activities.”