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What you need to know about accused Russian spy Maria Butina’s plea deal

Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to be a foreign agent in the US, and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Accused Russian spy Maria Butina speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia on Sunday, April 21, 2013.
Maria Butina speaks during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia, in 2013.
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian national, admitted Thursday in federal court that she made contacts with the NRA and top Republican officials in an attempt to secretly influence US politics at Russia’s behest.

Butina, who is a gun rights activist, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. She admitted to acting under the direction of a Russian official, Alexander Torshin, another prominent gun rights supporter and a fixture in Russian politics.

She also worked with another individual to infiltrate conservatives circles, who was identified in documents as “US Person 1,” and who is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative with connections to the NRA. (He and Butina also dated and lived together.)

The case against Butina is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet Butina’s activities fit into a broader narrative of Russian efforts to influence US politics.

What’s in Butina’s plea agreement

Butina was arrested in July and initially pleaded not guilty to the charges against her, which at the time included acting as an agent of a foreign government, and conspiring to do so.

On Thursday, however, Butina plead guilty to the less serious charge — of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent. She still faces a maximum of five years in prison, though she’s unlikely to be sentenced to that amount given her deal with prosecutors.

Butina acknowledged in court that she will likely be deported after she’s sentenced, which won’t happen until after she’s done cooperating with prosecutors. A status hearing has been scheduled for February 12.

Much 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.

Butina’s cooperation with prosecutors may yield more insights about the scope of her activities, and about her American contacts.

Butina admitted she wanted to make contacts to influence US politics

Butina, by pleading guilty, admitted Thursday that she tried to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in US politics.” She sought those “unofficial lines” of communication for the “benefit of the Russian Federation,” acting through a Russian official, prosecutors say.

Butina began her attempt to use unofficial channels to influence US politics around March 2015. She wrote a proposal suggesting she conduct outreach to the Republican Party (identified as Political Party 1 in court documents), since she believed it was in a good position to win the 2016 election.

According to the court documents, Butina acted under the direction of a “Russian Official” and with the assistance of “US Person 1” on the project. The Russian official is believed to be Torshin, a Russian banker and former Russian senator with ties to Vladimir Putin, and “US Person 1” is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote:

Erickson attended the 2013 trip to Russia, and reportedly met Butina there. At some point, the two became very close. Eventually, they dated and lived together, and by 2015, they were close enough for Butina to email Erickson her proposed plan to influence American politics.

With the assistance of the Russian official and US Person 1, Butina met with NRA members and attended NRA conventions, and helped organize a conference for top NRA members to go to Moscow in December 2015. Butina also hosted “friendship dinners” for prominent Republicans, and organized a Russian delegation to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, in 2017.

Through it all, she communicated regularly with the person believed to be Torshin, according to court documents, reporting to him about her efforts and her observations. She also sought advice and helped plan events with the person believed to be Erickson, whose role in this — as well as potential legal exposure — is still unclear.