The Russian woman convicted in the United States of being a Russian agent returned to Moscow on Saturday and declared that she has no desire to go back to America.
Maria Butina was deported Friday by the United States after serving a prison sentence, arriving the next day at the Russian capital's Sheremetyevo airport. Carrying a bouquet of flowers, she rested her head on the shoulder of her father, Valery, who had come from their Siberian hometown of Barnaul to meet her.
Butina, a gun rights activist, sought to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups and promote Russia's agenda around the time that Donald Trump rose to power. She had been in custody since her arrest in July 2018.
In brief comments to journalists at the airport after arriving on an Aeroflot flight from Miami, Butina thanked her supporters.
"I am very, very, very happy to be back home. I am very grateful to everyone who supported me — all the Russian citizens who helped and wrote me letters and donated money for my defense," she said.
Later she told the Kremlin-funded satellite TV station RT that she was not concerned that she had been banned from the US.
"I don't want to go back there in the near future, because if you are a Russian in the United States, you have to worry," she said.
The former American University graduate student pleaded guilty last December to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Russia. She admitted that she and a former Russian lawmaker worked to leverage contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American conservatives.
Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman, who also met Butina at the airport, said the 30-year-old is a victim of entrenched anti-Russian attitudes in the United States.
"This is what, unfortunately, the previous U.S. administration started — trying to destroy the bilateral relationship," spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. Since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Russian officials have consistently blamed the two nations' troubled relations on alleged "Russophobia" carried over from the administration of Trump's predecessor, President Barack Obama.
"She really did no harm to anybody. She's just a girl, she's just a young woman. She tried to invest her youth, if you wish, her gift, her talent, into people-to-people contacts," Zakharova said.
Butina's case was highly criticized in Russia and the foreign ministry underlined that position by using her face as the avatar on its Facebook page. That was changed to the Russian double eagle symbol after her return.
Butina violated U.S. law because she did not report her efforts to the Justice Department, which requires the registration of lobbyists and others in the U.S. who do the bidding of foreign governments. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison but received credit for time already served.
Her lawyers said Friday that she was not a spy and that the case had nothing to do with espionage or election interference. They cast the crime as more technical than substantive.
The Butina case captivated public attention in the U.S. because it unfolded around the same time as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference, even though the two probes were entirely separate.
It also led to scrutiny of the political dealings of the powerful NRA.
Alexander Roslyakov contributed to this story.