Accused Russian Agent Maria Butina Pleads Guilty to Conspiring Against the U.S.

Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights activist who cultivated relationships with the National Rifle Association and conservative political officials, has signed a plea agreement for acting as an agent for the Russian government.

Butina, a former graduate student at American University, agreed to plead guilty and, as part of her plea deal, cooperate with investigators in ongoing probes. Her cooperation in these investigations could shed light on Russian efforts to infiltrate U.S. politics with not just cyber operations, but with the collecting of human intelligence.

According to Politico, in a Washington D.C. federal courthouse Thursday, Butina admitted to participating in an information collection operation that put her in contact with prominent officials tied to the Republican Party and the Trump campaign.

ABC News reported that Butina admitted that she and an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” which sources have identified as Republican operative Paul Erickson, “agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official (“Russian Official”) and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.”

The “Russian Official” appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to court documents, Butina told the Russian government that she had “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication” with the next U.S. administration.

Her efforts to gain close access to prominent Republican officials began in 2015, where she, later that year, helped to organize a trip to Moscow for NRA officials.

“We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later,” Butina said of the planned trip, according to the court filing.

Butina had passed on information about the relationships she was developing to the Kremlin, including a relationship with Erickson, Politico reports.

When arrested in Washington, D.C. in July on charges of conspiracy and failure to register as a foreign agent, prosecutors said Butina has cultivated a romantic relationship with Erickson as a cover and had used sex as a tool to infiltrate powerful political groups, ABC News reports. But the government backed away from those claims in Thursday’s filing.

Butina, who has been in jail since her arrest and indictment, was confronted by the judge regarding the conditions of her confinement. The Russian government had criticized those conditions, and her attorney complained that she had been left in solitary confinement for too long.

When asked if her mind was “clear” and whether the conditions prompted her to plead guilty, Butina told the judge that her mind was “absolutely clear.”

Ahead of the Thursday hearing, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry told reporters in Moscow that the Russian government “will support any decision [Butina] might take aimed at her liberation” and called for her “soonest release from custody.”