Maria Butina, Russian Agent With NRA Ties, Gets 18 Months

(Bloomberg) -- Maria Butina, the self-styled Russian gun-rights activist who befriended senior officials from the National Rifle Association and the Republican party in the run-up to the 2016 election, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for failing to register in the U.S. as an agent of a foreign government.

Dressed in a green jump suit, Butina told U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington Friday that she was "deeply sorry" and felt "ashamed and embarrassed" by the international scandal she caused.

"Just an apology will never be enough for my mistakes, dear judge, because instead of building peace I created discord," she said.

Described by some as a Russian “spy,” Butina, 30, was actually a master networker -- a woman who used her purported interest in gun rights to facilitate meetings with NRA officials and prominent figures in the Republican party. A former American University student, she was arrested in July and has been held in prison since. Butina pleaded guilty in December and faced a maximum of five years.

She’ll get credit for the nine months she’s already spent in jail, and will be deported to Russia after completing her sentence.

Maria Butina, Russian Agent With NRA Ties, Gets 18 Months

Chutkan described Butina as "intelligent, personable, kind and hard-working" and credited her for cooperating with the U.S. government and accepting responsibility for her conduct. But the judge said her offense jeopardized U.S. national security.

"This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student," Chutkan said.

The Russian Embassy in the U.S. called for Butina’s immediate release in a statement on Twitter.

“Maria Butina is a political prisoner, a victim of repressive #US justice norms and a provocation masterminded by the U.S. special services,” the embassy said. “We insist on our compatriot’s innocence.”

In a court filing last week, the former head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division described Butina’s role as part of a “spot and assess” operation that could identify suitable targets for eventual recruitment.

“Butina provided Russia with information that has tremendous intelligence value,” wrote the former FBI official, Robert Anderson. “Butina provided the Russian Federation with information that skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States.”

In 2015, she met then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and attended the announcement of his presidential campaign. At a “FreedomFest” forum in Las Vegas that year, she asked candidate Donald Trump about his views on relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Russian interference in the 2016 election was the focus of an investigation recently completed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. As part of his investigation, Mueller charged more than two dozen Russian nationals with computer hacking, defrauding the U.S. and related crimes. The Butina investigation was separate, conducted by the Justice Department’s National Security division.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.