Russian female agent arrested in US
WASHINGTON - If Maria Butina was a covert agent sent to Washington by Moscow, she was pretty open about it.
The 29-year-old Russian, who appears in a Washington court Wednesday to face charges that she sought to "infiltrate" the US government, seemed to appear everywhere the Republican leaders and power brokers and shakers gathered.
In 2015, she was the first to get then-candidate Donald Trump to expound publicly about his Russia policy.
She posed for pictures with figures like Senator Rick Santorum, National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre, and Republican governors Rick Scott and Bobby Jindal, posting the snaps on social media.
She told colleagues at the American University graduate school in Washington, where she was a student, that she had a nearly direct line to Russian leader Vladimir Putin - which was true.
Displaying a flair with handguns and automatic rifles, she was a VIP at the NRA, arguably the most powerful conservative lobby in the United States.
But according to a federal indictment, Butina's very public activities masked the work of a "covert Russian agent" with a plan to spearhead Moscow's influence in President Trump's Republican Party.
Her arrest was announced Monday shortly after Trump held a summit with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump pledged to improve bilateral relations and dismissed US intelligence allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf.
She was charged with conspiracy and acting illegally as an agent for the Russian government without registering.
On Wednesday Moscow said her arrest aimed to undermine the gains made in the summit.
"This happened with the obvious task of minimizing the positive effect," of the Trump-Putin meeting, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
The indictment and an accompanying FBI affidavit describe an alleged secret plan for Butina, masquerading as a visiting student, "to conduct activities as an illegal agent of the Russian Federation in the United States through a Russian influence operation."
She worked directly for close Putin ally Alexander Torshin, formerly a senior member of the upper house of Russian's parliament, and now deputy governor of the Russian central bank.
But in a court filing Wednesday, the FBI said she "was in contact with officials believed to be Russian intelligence operatives," including the FSB, Moscow's federal security service.
Court documents and other records suggest she and Torshin developed plans to "infiltrate" US political society as early as 2011, when Torshin met then-NRA president David Keene and Butina launched a mirror Russian gun rights group, "The Right to Bear Arms."
In 2013 she befriended a well-known Republican operative, not identified in the indictment but widely reported to be Paul Erickson. The two began a romantic relationship and he opened a wide door for her in Washington.
She became a "life member" of the NRA and, with its sponsorship, attended numerous conservative and gun rights conferences. She addressed a camp for young Republicans in South Dakota, and stopped by at local US gun stores and shooting ranges.
Her social media accounts show the redhead at an NRA national convention in short, tight cutoff jeans, and a black cowboy hat and cowboy boots, testing a range of powerful firearms.
In July 2015, Butina was selected to ask Trump a question about his plans for ties with Russia at a rally in Las Vegas.
"I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin.... I don't think you'd need the sanctions," he said, in possibly his first campaign trail pronouncement on the issue.
Her activities ramped up after she moved to the US capital on a student visa in 2016, when she lived with Erickson. She helped arrange a visit by Torshin and other Russian officials, as they sought to construct a "back channel" network of sympathetic Americans with political influence.
She also sought, according to a court filing Wednesday to get a job with a lobby group, and "offered....sex in exchange."
The aim, her messages with Torshin expressed, was to turn around strained US-Russia relations.
"This is the battle for the future, it cannot be lost! Or everyone will lose," Torshin told her in direct messages on Twitter, according to court documents.
But by 2015 - well before Moscow's meddling in the 2016 election was exposed - FBI counterintelligence agents saw her as an espionage threat.
The indictment said Butina's and Torshin's aim was nefarious: "to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation." - APP/AFP