Butina sentencing to mark end of whirlwind Russian agent case

Butina sentencing to mark end of whirlwind Russian agent case

The case of Russian agent Maria Butina will come to a close Friday.

Butina, who was swept up in a national furor last year over her efforts to create unofficial channels of communication between Washington and Moscow, will be sentenced in a federal court in D.C. on Friday. She pleaded guilty in December to acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

The Russian national ultimately was not found to be connected to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But her attempts to persuade American officials and prominent groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA) to act in Moscow’s interests raised questions about the breadth of Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. politics.

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In a sentencing memo filed late last week, federal prosecutors said Butina “provided key information about Americans who were in a position to influence United States politics and took steps to establish an unofficial line of communication between Russia and these Americans,” all “for the benefit of the Russian Federation.”

Prosecutors allege that Butina’s actions were “part of Russia’s broader scheme to acquire information and establish relationships and communication channels that can be exploited to the Russian Federation’s benefit.” 

“Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense of trying to gain access to classified information to send back to her home country. She was not a trained intelligence officer,” government attorneys wrote in their sentencing memo. “But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States.”

Prosecutors are asking a judge to give her an 18 month prison sentence. Butina’s attorneys argue she should not receive any prison time and instead be sent home to Russia.

She has already spent roughly nine months incarcerated in the U.S.

Butina’s lawyers have sought to present the 30-year-old defendant as a smart, successful young woman whose “world has collapsed because of a decision to help and discuss her amateur diplomacy efforts with a Russian official.”

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They dispute that her actions posed a danger to U.S. national security. And while they say Butina recognizes the severity of having broken the law, they characterize her failure to register as a foreign agent as nothing more than a mistake.

“Moreover, had Maria notified the Attorney General of her foreign agent status in advance of her activities, she would have committed no crime,” her attorneys wrote in a memo.

Butina was at times referred to as a “spy” in some media reports, despite never facing espionage charges. But her case had all the makings of a dramatic spy novel.

She was a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and she dated an older Republican strategist, mingling with influential Americans. She even organized for a group of NRA officials to travel to Moscow.

Butina also thought she would have the opportunity to meet President TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE at the National Prayer Breakfast shortly after he took office, according to prosecutors.

The Russian national garnered more headlines when details emerged about her relationship with GOP political operative Paul Erickson. Prosecutors allege that their romance was fake, and that Butina traded sex for insider information. 

Her attorneys disputed those assertions by releasing a video of Butina and Erickson singing the song "Beauty and the Beast" as evidence that their relationship was real. Erickson was indicted earlier this year on unrelated fraud charges.

Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA who oversaw the agency’s overseas operations in the 1990s, told The Hill that Butina was in a prime position to identify Americans who could influence U.S. policies under Trump.

He said Russian officials scrambled after the 2016 election to develop contacts within Trump’s circle, as most of their existing contacts were in establishment groups or positions. 

That effort to get close to the new president was documented in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThis week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Top Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction MORE’s report on ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, released last week.

Devine said that if Butina had maintained a lower profile and focused solely on making connections and identifying Americans who could have been influenced, she likely could have gone undetected for far longer than she did.

“When you do that, you tend not to get involved in action activities,” Devine said. “In this case, the action activities sometimes get you exposed.”

Much of Butina’s work appears to have been done with the help of Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a former Russian senator who reportedly has close ties to President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats, advocacy groups urge Pompeo to abolish new 'unalienable rights' commission How Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann's offer to an oligarch could boomerang on DOJ Key Merkel ally set to test Trump amid tensions with Europe MORE and alleged ties to the Russian mob.

Torshin was not listed by name in court filings submitted by the U.S. government, but he has repeatedly been identified in media reports as the Russian official working alongside Butina.

He and Butina attended the NRA’s 2015 convention together, where she formed connections with several of the group’s members. That revelation fueled speculation over the gun rights group’s ties to the Kremlin. 

The NRA has attempted to distance itself from Butina, casting the Moscow visit as an unofficial one that did not have the support of NRA leadership.

Butina was arrested in July, meaning her case played out amid Mueller’s 22-month investigation into Russia's election interference. But she was not referenced in the redacted version of Mueller’s final report.

The intense national speculation surrounding Mueller’s probe nonetheless amplified the attention given to Butina’s case.

Some experts, however, say she should not be viewed as a top asset for Moscow.

“I think the Russian model, it’s sort of like Silicon Valley — fail quickly and fail cheaply,” Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill. “They send out lots of feelers that don’t have high economic or political costs. And if any of them pay off, that’s great, and if they don’t, you’re not out much.”

Still, he noted that Butina was able to make connections with influential figures in American politics, even if she was caught shortly thereafter.

Butina’s sentencing hearing, overseen by Judge Tanya Chutkan, an Obama appointee, is scheduled to begin Friday at 10 a.m.