Maria Butina: AU Wonk, Russian Spy, and GOP Influencer

You may know her from the various posts on AU Memes for Red Line Disenfranchised Teens, but how well do you know Maria herself?

Maria Butina is not only a fellow AU Wonk, but a Russian spy. On July 15, 2018, Butina was arrested for espionage after residing in the US for nearly three years. She has been incarcerated for the past 5 months and is currently awaiting her sentencing hearing.

In between her espionage extracurriculars, Maria Butina was attending graduate school right here at American Univesity. During her time at AU, Butina worked as a research assistant in the KOGOD School of Business and was pursuing a master's degree in International Service with a concentration in cybersecurity and policy. When she wasn't studying, Maria Butina was busy working for the Russian government. However, Butina was not a Russian spy in the traditional sense. While we tend to think of midnight capers with people dressed in trench coats or scenes from The Americans, Butina carried out her work for the Kremlin in a much more overt way. She was very open about her Russian origins and was very active both online and in real life. Butina gave speeches and interviews, organized dinners and events, and even attended two National Prayer Breakfasts where many top Republican officials were present. 

All of Butina’s actions can be traced back to her roots as one of Russia’s leading gun rights activists. Butina is the founder of the pro-gun group “Right to Bear Arms” (source) and used her interest in gun rights issues to forge connections with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Members of the Russian government identified the NRA as the political interest group with the most influence over the Republican Party (GOP). Butina’s exact mission in the US was unclear, but her work primarily centered around influencing the GOP and serving as a “spotter” for the Kremlin. As a “spotter,” Butina would acquire information from her numerous contacts, most notably her informant-turned-lover Patrick Erickson, and report to higher Russian espionage officials back home, including Alex Torshin, the former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. 

Butina captured the attention of the FBI in 2015, but she was not arrested until this past July. Butina pleaded guilty in December for conspiracy against the United States and for being an unregistered foreign agent. She is currently being held in a Virgina prison until her sentencing hearing which is tentatively scheduled for February and could result in a sentence of six months to five years in federal prison. Although the case of Maria Butina’s open involvement in US politics is scandalous, there appears to be no ties to the ongoing Mueller investigation. While incarcerated, Butina is continuing to turn over evidence to prosecutors to aid in other cases, including an investigation into the actions of her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, who has also been charged with conspiracy against the US and for providing insider information. 

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3

Sources: 1, 2, 3