Maria Butina, who admitted to conspiring to act as a covert Russian agent and charmed American conservative leaders with her gun-rights activism, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on Friday.
The prison term was what the Justice Department requested for Butina, though she’ll spend closer to nine months behind bars thanks to time already served in jail. “The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into U.S. political organizations,” D.C. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan said before handing down the stiff sentence.
Butina is a 30-year-old Russian national who came to the U.S. to study at American University in Washington, D.C. and courted gun-rights and conservative activists, especially in the National Rifle Association. She was arrested last July and charged with violating a U.S. law that bars people from acting as foreign agents without telling the attorney general—a charge Justice Department lawyers characterize as “espionage-lite.” Butina pleaded guilty in December and agreed to cooperate with the government.
Just before she was sentenced, Butina made an emotional plea for leniency. Her voice shook as she spoke.
“My parents discovered my arrest on the morning news they watch in their rural house in a Siberian village,” she said. “I love them dearly, but I harmed them morally and financially. They are suffering from all of that. I destroyed my own life as well. I came to the United States not under any orders, but with hope, and now nothing remains but penitence.”
While living in the U.S., Butina communicated with then-Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin about her efforts to build relationships with Americans. In one instance, she claimed she had influence over who would become Trump’s secretary of state. In December 2015, she even helped arrange for a delegation of NRA leaders to visit Moscow, where they met with powerful figures in the Russian government.
Butina said she would have registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, but she claimed not to have known U.S. law.
“I deeply regret this crime, not merely because it has harmed me, my beloved friends, and my cherished family, but ironically, it has harmed my attempts to improve the relationships between the two countries,” she said.
Chutkan had none of it.
“This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student,” Chutkan said, saying the crime Butina pled guilty to “is serious, and jeopardized this country’s national security.”
Erik Kenerson, the prosecutor handling her case, told Chutkan that Butina was executing a plan to establish contact between the two governments, for the benefit of Russia. The information was “of extreme importance to the Russian Federation,” he said.
“There is no doubt that she was not simply a grad student,” he said.
“Her conduct shows how easy it can be for a foreign government to target Americans in the U.S.,” he added.
One of her lawyers, Alfred Carry, pushed back against Kenerson’s argument.
“Maria is not a spy,” he said. “She’s not intelligence. She’s never been employed by the Russian government. She knows of no secret codes, safehouses, illegals. She has never engaged in covert activity and she has never lied to our government.”
During her time in the U.S., Butina also entered a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, a longtime conservative-movement insider who helped her befriend people in the NRA. Erickson was indicted this year in South Dakota on charges of several financial crimes, none of which involved Butina or Russia.
The sentence marks the end of a two-year saga that has riveted Washington and embodied tensions between the U.S. and Russia stemming from Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.
The Justice Department asked for Butina to receive an 18-month sentence. Butina asked the judge to sentence her to the time she has already served.
Butina noted that she has cooperated with federal investigators extensively since entering her guilty plea last December. And she said that in the wake of her plea, her future looks bleak.
“I have three degrees, but now I’m a convicted felon with no job, no money, and no freedom,” she said. “My reputation is ruined, both here in the United States and abroad. And while I know that I am not this evil person who has been depicted in the media, I’m responsible for these consequences.”
Butina will be deported back to Russia after she is released from prison.
“I still hold a whisper in my heart to one day return to this country,” she added, “but I know this wish is only a dream.”