A Russian woman pleaded guilty Thursday in Washington to acting as a Kremlin agent to conspire to build ties with the powerful National Rifle Association gun rights group in the U.S. and infiltrate Republican Party circles to pass information back to Moscow.
Maria Butina was charged in July with acting illegally as an unregistered Russian agent and conspiracy. She initially entered a not-guilty plea.
But Butina admitted to U.S. Judge Tanya Chutkan that she had, in fact, been working for the Russian government.
As part of an agreement with prosecutors to change her plea to guilty, the 30-year-old Butina agreed to help them with insight into Russian meddling in U.S. political affairs. Her actions were directed by Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia's central bank, who in April was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Butina faces up to five years' imprisonment and remains jailed while awaiting sentencing Feb. 12. She could be deported to her homeland after serving any prison term.
Republican activist boyfriend
Butina allegedly developed a personal relationship with an NRA-linked Republican activist, Paul Erickson, and lived with him. Butina also enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, where she earned a master's degree in international relations earlier this year.
The U.S. Justice Department alleged that Butina was a "covert Russian agent" who maintained connections with Russian spies in a mission aimed at penetrating "the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation." They alleged that her work in the United States was directed by a former Russian lawmaker who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader said Tuesday he had never heard of Butina until her July arrest. Putin said that when he asked Russian intelligence services for information about her, he was told that "no one knows anything about her."
The Butina case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing, 19-month investigation into whether President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice to try to thwart the probe.