Suspected Russian agent met with Kremlin-linked official in US: report

Suspected Russian agent met with Kremlin-linked official in US: report
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Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, who was arrested this month and charged with operating as an unregistered Russian agent in the U.S., dined with the head of a Russian cultural center in the U.S. that federal authorities reportedly suspect to be a front for recruiting spies.

Politico reports that Butina met in January with Oleg Zhiganov, the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Russian Cultural Centre since 2014. The organization has sent hundreds of young Americans to Russia on sponsored trips where federal authorities believe they are targeted for recruitment.

“As far as I know, they went out to dinner that one time,” Butina’s defense attorney Robert Driscoll told Politico. “And she might have known him from events at the embassy.”

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Zhiganov's predecessor at the foundation left the Russian Foreign Ministry-sponsored center after media reports concluded that he was being investigated as a Kremlin spy, the newspaper noted.

Zhiganov's identity was not revealed in court documents this week, which referred to him as a suspected intelligence operative, but a source familiar with the investigation confirmed his identity to Politico. 

Prosecutors had pointed to his travel to Russia as evidence that Butina, now in custody, is a flight risk.

The two enjoyed “a private meal … just weeks before that suspected intelligence operative left the country,” prosecutors said in court filings.

Driscoll disagreed, Politico reported, arguing that Butina had no knowledge of Zhiganov's suspected role as a Kremlin agent.

Butina's meeting with “the supposed Russian intelligence official, that simply is a daisy chain of the government's speculating that someone is a Russian spy and therefore trying to cast aspersion on Ms. Butina for meeting with him,” Driscoll told a judge this week. “By the same theory, any of the thousands of people that have met Ms. Butina during her time here have also met with a Russian intelligence officer.”

Driscoll added that Butina “certainly is unaware if he is any member of the Russian intelligence, as alleged by the Government. A Russian national having dinner with a Russian national is nothing unique at all.”

The Justice Department charged Butina last week and accused her of acting with “the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation” at the direction a “high-level” Russian official.

“The court filings detail the Russian official’s and Butina’s efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation,” the Justice Department said in a release describing her arrest.