To many Americans Maria Butina was the right kind of Russian

To many Americans Maria Butina was the right kind of Russian

Washington: To the conservative Americans she courted, Maria Butina was the right kind of Russian.

She loved guns and the church and networking with top officials in the National Rifle Association. She schmoozed with Republican presidential candidates, and became a supporter of Donald Trump. She spent Thanksgiving at a congressman's country house, took a Trump campaign aide to see the rock band Styx and helped a Rockefeller heir organise "friendship dinners" with influential Washingtonians.

Maria Butina, a gun-rights activist, poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow, Russia, in 2012.Credit:AP

Butina agreed to cooperate with the investigators as part of her deal. In exchange, she will most likely get a short prison term, or possibly be released after having already spent five months in jail. She will probably then be deported, according to court papers laying out the agreement.

At the hearing to change her plea on Thursday, the judge said Butina would remain in custody while she was cooperating with federal investigators. A hearing to consider when she should be sentenced was set for February 12.

Yet even as prosecutors secured Butina's conviction and cooperation, they faced questions about their initial portrayal of Butina as something like a character out of Red Sparrow, the spy thriller about a Russian femme fatale.

Prosecutors had already been forced to back off the most salacious accusations against Butina — that she used sex as spycraft — and acknowledged in court filings this week that she genuinely wanted a graduate degree, and was not simply posing as a student to live in the United States. They also dropped accusations of her being in contact with Russian intelligence agencies, and that she was only using Erickson to gain access to other influential Americans.

Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organisation in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalising the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia.Credit:AP

Butina's lawyers had strenuously objected to the earlier portrayal of their client, and the plea deal was likely to provide her defenders with new fodder to argue that her activities look sinister only to those who see the world through the outdated lens of the Cold War. For all of the headline-grabbing talk of a flame-haired Russian spy seducing unwitting Americans that followed her arrest, they say, Butina hardly lived her life in the shadows.

She openly advocated Russia-friendly policies and closer connections between her homeland and the United States in speeches and during her time at American University in Washington, where she earned a master's degree. Her cellphone case featured a picture of President Vladimir Putin of Russia riding a horse shirtless. She frequented Russia House, an upscale Washington bar where Russian hockey stars like Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals enjoy vodka and caviar.

Butina similarly made little effort to hide her knack for getting close to powerful older men. She posed for pictures with prominent Republicans, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other former presidential candidates. She even managed to get a photo with Donald Trump jnr, the President's eldest son, whom she met at a 2016 dinner hosted by the NRA in Louisville, Kentucky.

She also made no secret of her desire to help broker a secret meeting with Trump, then a candidate, and Putin during the 2016 election.

Butina's arrest in July stemmed from what officials described as a broader counterintelligence investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI that predated the 2016 election and is separate from the work being done by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

The investigation has focused on Alexander Torshin, a Russian government official who worked closely with Butina for years. Torshin is close to Christian conservatives in Russia and has been attending NRA conventions in the United States since 2011.

Alexander Torshin, a member of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, left, and then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, attend an award ceremony in the Kremlin in 2011.Credit:AP

Beginning in 2015, prosecutors said in the plea deal, Butina "agreed and conspired" with Torshin and Erickson — identified in court papers as the "Russian Official" and "US Person 1"— to infiltrate the Republican Party and the NRA and to promote Russia-friendly policies on behalf of the Kremlin. Torshin directed Butina's work, they said, and Erickson helped her with what she called her "Diplomacy Project."

They helped her organise trips to Moscow for prominent NRA members, and helped her set up meetings for a Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017.

"Throughout the conspiracy, Butina wrote notes to Russian Official about her efforts and her assessment of the political landscape in the United States in advance of the 2016 election," the prosecutors wrote.

"Butina also sought Russian Official's advice on whether to take meetings with certain people," they added. "She asked him for direction on whether the Russian 'government' was ready to meet with some of those people."

The plea deal also makes reference to George O'Neill jnr, a Rockefeller relative and conservative writer who helped pay Butina's bills in the United States. O'Neill, who is not accused of wrongdoing, is described in the court papers as "a wealthy and well-connected US person" who hosted large "friendship dinners" that were focused on improving relations between Russia and the United States.

The dinners, prosecutors said, afforded Butina chances "to meet individuals with political capital, learn their thoughts and inclinations toward Russia, gauge their responses to her and adjust her pitch accordingly."

Then there was a Russian oligarch, Konstantin Nikolayev, who provided money for some of Butina's initial travel and work in the United States, prosecutors said. Nikolayev is a transport magnate whose wife runs a Russian gun company that Butina visited with an NRA delegation in 2015. He has previously denied providing Butina with any financial support after 2014.

The New York Times

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