Maria Butina, the red-headed gun advocate from Russia who built a network of high-level Republican contacts in the United States before being arrested for spying, is expected to return to her country after her Friday release from a Florida prison.
The only Russian arrested and convicted in the three-year investigation of Moscow’s interference in US politics, Butina parlayed ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) firearms lobby into a network that brought her into contact with US President Donald Trump before his 2016 election, as well as with one of his sons.
Butina said she was on a quest to establish better relations between Russia and the US, and enrolled in university in Washington, DC while living with a Republican operative.
But she was arrested in July 2018 on allegations she was engaging in espionage, though she had no connection with Russia’s established spy agencies.
In December, Butina, 30, entered a plea deal on a charge that she acted as an illegal, unregistered foreign agent, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, nearly half of which was credited as already served.
Under broader attack in the US for interfering in the 2016 election, Moscow made the Siberian native a cause-celebre, with the foreign ministry posting her picture prominently on its social media accounts, calling to “Free Maria”.
Her lawyer, a Washington public defender, did not reply to questions about her plans, but said in a filing this week she would return to Russia.
Russian media also reported she was expected to be back within days.
But it remained unclear whether she was an intelligence operative positioned to infiltrate US political circles, or just someone genuinely creating people-to-people channels of cooperation who fell victim to a higher level of intrigue relating to Russian election interference.
Butina told NPR radio from jail while a graduate student in politics at American University, she had only sought to be involved in “civil diplomacy”.
“I never hide my love to my motherland neither to this country… I love both countries and I was building peace,” she said.
Starting in 2013, Butina built a bridge to the US through ties between her small Russian gun-rights group and the Republican-aligned NRA.
Her group hosted NRA leaders in Russia and she and her influential Moscow sponsor, Alexander Torshin, attended NRA events and US political gatherings, where they met influential Republicans.
Attending a Trump rally in 2016, Butina was singled out to ask the future president a question about US-Russia relations.
Her social media was full of pictures of her posing with various firearms, endearing her to US gun activists. She became the girlfriend of a mid-level Republican and NRA operative, Paul Erickson.
In 2016, she enrolled in American University, but prosecutors said she was in regular contact with embassy personnel with intelligence ties.
They said although Butina was not an employee of any of Moscow’s spy services, she knowingly took part in an operation to “spot and assess” potential US espionage targets.
“There is no doubt that she was not simply a graduate student,” Assistant US Attorney Erik Kenerson told the court.
Butina denied it but ultimately agreed to plead guilty to the charges of being an unregistered foreign agent.
“I humbly request forgiveness. I’m not this evil person depicted in the media,” she told the court before being sentenced.