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Maria Butina sentenced to 18 months for Russian influence operation

Butina pleaded guilty for conspiring to act as a foreign agent in December.

Maria Butina Arrested On Spying Charges
Maria Butina.
Alexandria Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Maria Butina, a Russian national and graduate student who made contacts with conservative groups in an effort to influence US politics, was sentenced Friday to 18 months in federal prison.

Butina, 30, pleaded guilty in December on one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. Originally arrested in July 2018, she ingratiated herself with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative groups, attending political events and casting herself as a gun rights activist, at the direction of a Russian official. She made these connections in an effort to sway US politics for the benefit of Russia, according to prosecutors.

During her sentencing, Butina downplayed any larger scheme to influence US politics. “I came here to better my life, to get a degree. I wished to mend relations while building my résumé,” she told the court, according to NBC News. “It was for these actions and my own ignorance that I’m here.”

But US District Judge Tanya Chutkan clearly didn’t buy it. As BuzzFeed reports, she told Butina that this wasn’t “a simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student.”

Butina faced a maximum of five years, but Chutkan sentenced her to just 18 months. That also includes nine months of time Butina already served since her arrest. This is pretty close to what prosecutors asked for, citing her cooperation. She’ll be deported back to Russia after her release from prison.

In her guilty plea, Butina admitted to acting under the direction of a Russian official, Alexander Torshin, another prominent gun rights supporter and a fixture in Russian politics. Their stated goal was to make inroads in Republican politics, and to potentially make the party more amenable to the Kremlin.

Many of Butina’s activities were out in the open: She attended NRA events and other events frequented by conservatives, and even asked then-candidate Donald Trump a question about Russian sanctions at a campaign event in July 2015.

The case against Butina wasn’t tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, though it did highlight another element of the Kremlin’s influence campaign in US politics.

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