Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights enthusiast accused of seeking to infiltrate conservative political circles in the United States, was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison.
Butina, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and a former graduate student at American University in Washington, was arrested last July in the U.S. capital on charges of acting as an agent of a foreign official without notifying the attorney general.
The former Kremlin official, Alexander Torshin, allegedly directed Butina to use her gun rights activism to establish relationships with politically influential Americans and to open unofficial lines of communication between the Americans and Moscow in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to prosecutors.
Butina pleaded guilty in December to the conspiracy charge, admitting that she collected information about the NRA, the nation's largest gun lobby, and other organizations at Torshin's direction from 2015 to 2017.
Two Americans allegedly helped Butina with the conspiracy. One of them, Paul Erickson, a Republican political operative who dated Butina at the time of her arrest, was indicted in February on unrelated charges of wire fraud and money laundering.
The case against Butina is not related to the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the election.
In Washington, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who imposed the sentence, said Butina would receive credit for time served and ordered her deported as soon as she completes her prison term.
An emotional Butina, dressed in plain prison clothing and flanked by her two attorneys, told the judge that her aim was to mend relations between Russia and the United States.
"Instead of building peace, I created discord," she said. "Now, I beg for mercy, for the chance to go home and rebuild my life."
Butina faced a maximum of five years in prison. Chutkan said she was imposing the 18-month sentence requested by prosecutors because of the seriousness of Butina's offense.
"She was doing this under the direction of a Russian official ... at a time that Russia was looking to interfere with the U.S. political process," Chutkan said. "This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student."
Butina's attorneys had called for her release, arguing that she had accepted responsibility, cooperated extensively with investigators and had already served nine months in jail.
"Maria is not a spy," attorney Alfred Carry said. "She's not intelligence. She's never been employed by the Russian government. She knows of no secret codes, safe houses. ... She has never engaged in covert activity and she has never lied to our government."
Butina said she would have registered as a foreign agent "without delay," had she known about the requirement.
But prosecutors said her crime was not merely a registration offense.
"This is a case where the defendant acted in the United States as the agent of a foreign government," said prosecutor Erik Kenerson. "She did so for the benefit of Russia."
In a recent sentencing memo, prosecutors said that while Butina was not a traditional spy, her actions on behalf of the Russian government had the potential to undermine U.S. national security. In addition, they wrote that Butina was "keenly aware that portions of her work" were reported to "the wider Russian government."
The judge agreed.
"It is because she did not register that her conduct was so dangerous," Chutkan said.