What to Know
- Butina has long displayed remarkable ambition, political savvy and an overt love of weapons
- She is charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government
- She once bragged of conducting "industrial espionage" into gun lobbying in the U.S. by buying "masses of gifts" at an NRA show
By her early 20s, Maria Butina appeared to have a budding political career and a mini furniture empire in her remote Siberian hometown. Then she abandoned both to pursue her passion for gun rights — and, prosecutors say, to act as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States.
Butina, 29, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Washington to charges she worked as a foreign agent, representing a new generation of Russian operatives seeking a long-term U.S. foothold. Her lawyer says she did nothing wrong.
"It's psychosis. A witch hunt," her father, Valery Butin, was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Altapress website in her hometown of Barnaul.
U.S. prosecutors suggest Butina used her gun-lobbying efforts to infiltrate the NRA and the Republican Party, both during the 2016 presidential campaign and after Donald Trump's election.
Butina was "likely" in contact with operatives of the successor agency to the KGB while she lived in the United States — she had contact information for people who were employees of the Russia's Federal Security Services, prosecutors said Wednesday in court papers.
Citing her intelligence ties, the government is arguing that Butina poses an "extreme" risk of fleeing the U.S., where she has been living on a student visa. In seeking her detention, prosecutors said Butina's "legal status in the United States is predicated on deception." They said surveillance video from the past week shows that Butina planned to leave the country.
Prosecutors also said she tried to swap sex for influence in a special interest organization and was living with an unidentified man, suggesting she was using him for her own means, NBC News reported.
A Russian official with whom she was in touch allegedly compared her to Anna Chapman, the Russian woman arrested in 2010 and deported as part of a prisoner swap.
In March 2017, following news coverage of Butina, the Russian official wrote, "Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones," according to the court filing.
From her provincial beginnings, Butina displayed remarkable ambition, political savvy and an overt love of weapons.
That carried her out of the Siberian steppe to Moscow, where she befriended a well-placed senator, founded a gun-rights group, and posed seductively with guns in an interview with Russia's GQ magazine.
Her ambitions didn't stop at Russia's borders. She traveled to gun shows and right-wing events from the Freedomfest in Las Vegas to a National Rifle Association meeting in Indianapolis, according to her own social media posts. Along the way, she met the governor of Wisconsin, and gave speeches at a high school and university in South Dakota.
U.S. federal prosecutors say she was more than just a curious tourist. Butina is charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, suspected of gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations and working to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin.
Court documents detailed extensive private Twitter conversations and other discussions between Butina and a senior Russian official about her activities in the United States.
The Russian official is believed to be Alexander Torshin, deputy head of the Russian Central Bank and a target of U.S. sanctions since April. He and the Central Bank didn't respond to requests for comment about Butina's arrest.
Russia's Foreign Ministry lashed out Wednesday over Butina's arrest.
"We have the impression that FBI, instead of fulfilling its main responsibilities in fighting crime, is fulfilling openly political orders. It's coming from those forces that are continuing to fuel Russo-phobic hysteria" in the United States, said ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
She said Butina still hasn't been able to meet with consular representatives and questioned the timing of her Sunday arrest, just before Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit.
Butina has been on the FBI radar for months, has already testified in a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee and had her house searched in April, according to her lawyer.
She posted publicly on social networks about her travels around the U.S. and her dream of loosening gun laws in Russia. In videos online promoting gun causes, she is remarkably assured, both in Russian and in her accented but fast and fluent English.
Back in her hometown of Barnaul, she finished high school with honors and studied at Altai State University and the School of Real Politics. She started a school debate club and worked for a local newspaper, according to local officials.
She then opened a furniture store that she grew into a network, according to Altapress and other local news sites. At the same time, she was elected to the local Public Chamber, an advisory body that acts as a go-between between local officials and the public.
She ran for a spot on the nationwide Public Chamber; she didn't get it but she did make contacts in Moscow and moved to the capital, where she founded gun-rights group Right to Bear Arms.
Her star didn't immediately rise. She wrote in a 2014 blog for independent radio station Ekho Moskvy that she only got a U.S. visa on her third try.
On the blog she posted a photo of the Indianapolis airport, comparing it favorably to Barnaul, and describing doing yoga and jogging along the river. She bragged of conducting "industrial espionage" into gun lobbying in the U.S. by buying "masses of gifts" at an NRA show.
Among those she met in Moscow was political expert Andrei Kolyadin, who used her as an interpreter when he attended a National Prayer Breakfast in the U.S. and said he spoke with her just before her arrest about the World Cup, held in Russia.
"She is an extremely energetic person with plenty of ideas," he said in an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency. He insisted she wasn't working in intelligence.
In D.C., Butina graduated from American University in May with a master’s degree in international service and cyber policy.
Trevor Hembling was in a finance class at American with Butina last semester and is now a freelancer at NBC Washington.
"It's mind-boggling. I can't believe I shared a class with this girl," he said. "The fact that I shared a classroom with her, and she was sitting like everybody else, is pretty hard to grasp."
A tai chi studio near the university lists a Maria Butina as a recipient of a studio scholarship in 2016. A personal statement on the studio's website says she was born in Siberia and getting a master’s degree in international service.
Kolyadin said she had recently been wondering what to do next after graduating from American University in May with a master's degree in international relations. Her lawyer said she finished with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
The lawyer, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations "overblown" and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities. Driscoll said Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation, but simply a 29-year-old woman in the U.S. on a student visa.