A Russian woman has been arrested and charged for serving as a covert agent for the Kremlin by conspiring to influence US politics through ties with political groups, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful gun-ownership rights lobby.
Mariia Butina, a Russian national who has been living in the US, was arrested in Washington, DC, on Sunday and appeared in court on Monday, the Department of Justice said.
A federal judge in Washington ordered her jailed until a hearing set for Wednesday, according to a statement from the Department of Justice and Jessie Liu, the US attorney for the District of Columbia.
Butina, 29, was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Russia “by developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organisations having influence in American politics”, it said in a statement.
The Department of Justice said Butina had broken US law by not disclosing to US authorities that she was acting on behalf of the Russian government.
Butina had close ties to a “Russian official” who was not identified in the charging documents but who has been widely reported to be a Russian politician named Alexander Torshin, it said.
An ally of Putin, Torshin is currently a senior official with Russia’s central bank and a former top Russian politician. He is one of a number of senior Russian officials subject to US sanctions.
The Department of Justice said Butina carried out her activities in the US at the direction of the “Russian official”.
It said Butina and the official sought to develop relationships with US politicians to create “back channel” lines of communications that could be “used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus”.
In a statement, Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations “overblown” and said prosecutors had criminalised mundane networking opportunities.
Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the US on a student visa, graduating from American University with a master’s degree in international relations.
“There is simply no indication of Ms Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law or the United States – only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll said in a statement.
In 2011, Butina founded a pro-gun-ownership organisation in Russia called the Right to Bear Arms and Torshin has long touted his connections with the NRA, according to US media reports.
Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports.
The NRA, which has previously been connected to Butina in public reporting and information released by members of Congress, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The charges against Butina were brought by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.