Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to serve as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin as part of a plea agreement that would see her cooperate with federal prosecutors. Butina, 30, was allegedly part of a years-long effort to infiltrate political groups such as the NRA in an attempt “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics” and Russian officials with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to court documents, Butina traveled to the U.S. in April 2015 to attend a gun conference and make connections with members of the Republican Party. Using her Russian gun rights group, “Right to Bear Arms,” she helped former NRA presidents, board members, and major donors meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a meeting in Moscow in December 2015. Following the meeting, the plea agreement revealed, Butina contacted an unnamed Russian official to follow up on how to take advantage of her expanding influence. “We should let them express their gratitude now,” wrote Butina. “We will put pressure on them quietly later.”
Butina later returned to the U.S. in June 2016 on a student visa where she helped “establish a back channel of communication” between Russia and American politicians at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. According to an email from an American working with Butina that was quoted in the agreement, details of the meeting were to “relayed DIRECTLY” to Putin and the Russian foreign minister.
Not mentioned in the case were allegations that Butina also sought to arrange a “back channel” meeting between then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Putin. Butina faces up to five years in prison, but her defense lawyers have said that under the plea agreement her sentence could be as short as just six months. The judge has yet to set a sentencing date because of Butina’s ongoing cooperation with government investigators.
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