A Russian woman arrested in Washington over the weekend on charges of working as an illegal foreign agent in the United States “appears” to have ties to Russia’s intelligence services, prosecutors revealed in court documents on Wednesday.
Maria Butina, who founded a gun rights organization and worked as an aide to a top Russian government official, is accused of infiltrating influential American political organizations such as the National Rifle Association for the purpose of advancing Russian interests in the United States.
She was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday on one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, and one count of working as a foreign agent in connection with the covert influence operation.
Prosecutors allege that Butina carried out the scheme at the direction of an unnamed senior Russian government official. The official is not named in court documents, but his description matches that of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and a former senator in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party.
In a court filing calling for Butina’s pre-trial detention, prosecutors disclosed Butina’s alleged ties to Russian intelligence. The FBI’s searches of her electronic devices revealed that Butina was “in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives,” prosecutors said.
Butina maintained a contact list of individuals identified as employees of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, according to court papers. Another document seized by the FBI “contained a hand-written note, entitled “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” and asking ‘How to respond to FSB offer of employment?’” according to the filings.
“Based on this and other evidence, the FBI believes that the defendant was likely in contact with the FSB throughout her stay in the United States,” prosecutors wrote.
Preparing to flee
Butina’s arrest came as the FBI feared she was preparing to leave the country. Her apartment lease was set to expire on July 31, and there were boxes packed in her apartment, according to the latest court filings.
“Because Butina has been exposed as an illegal agent of Russia, there is the grave risk that she will appeal to those within that government with whom she conspired to aid her escape from the United States,” prosecutors wrote.
Butina visited the United States several times in 2014 and 2015 before obtaining an F-1 student visa in August 2016 to enroll as a student at American University in Washington. A university official confirmed that she’s been enrolled at the American University School of International Service since fall 2016.
Russia’s foreign ministry, calling the allegations against Butina “groundless,” said her detention was carried out to minimize the impact of the recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement on Monday, Driscoll denied the allegations against his client.
Right to Bear Arms
Butina and Torshin founded the Right to Bear Arms, a gun advocacy organization modeled on the NRA, in 2012.
Torshin became a lifetime member of the NRA, and the duo regularly attended the gun lobby’s annual meetings in the U.S. in recent years, according to their social media accounts.
U.S. prosecutors allege that Butina sought to cultivate close ties with the NRA as a conduit to the Republican Party during the 2016 presidential election. The goal was to sway what the Russians saw as the Republican Party’s “negative and aggressive” policy toward Russia, according to an email from Butina that was intercepted by the FBI and cited in the indictment.
The offense carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.