By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A woman accused of acting as a Russian agent to infiltrate a powerful gun lobby group and influence U.S. policy toward Moscow pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy in federal court on Thursday in a deal with prosecutors that could give them insight into Russian meddling in American politics.
Maria Butina, a Russian former graduate student at American University in Washington who publicly advocated for gun rights, entered the plea at a court hearing in Washington before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan. She also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Butina was charged by prosecutors in July with acting as an agent of Russia’s government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Moscow. She had earlier pleaded not guilty before changing her plea during Thursday’s hearing.
Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, estimated that under U.S. sentencing guidelines she could face up to six months in prison.
Prosecutors accused Butina, who was jailed awaiting trial, of working with a Russian official and two U.S. citizens to try to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a group closely aligned with Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, and sway Washington’s policy toward Moscow.
Butina’s lawyers previously identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who was targeted with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in April.
One of the two Americans cited in the prosecution’s criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist who was dating Butina.
After she was charged, Russia labeled the case against Butina “fabricated” and called for her release. Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about Butina on Tuesday in Moscow, a day after U.S. court filings indicated she would plea guilty in Washington.
“She risks 15 years in jail. For what?” Putin asked . “…I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her.”
The prosecutors in the Butina case are not from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow to help him win.
Nevertheless, Butina becomes with her guilty plea the first Russian citizen to be convicted of working to shape U.S. policy in the time period spanning the 2016 election campaign. Mueller has brought criminal charges against a series of Russian individuals and entities but those cases are still pending.
The prosecution’s complaint against Butina did not explicitly mention Trump’s campaign. Reuters previously reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at Washington parties that she could use her political connections to help people get jobs in his administration.
Butina even asked Trump a question at a gathering of U.S. conservatives in Las Vegas in 2015 when he was running for president, querying him about American relations with Russia and economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump responded that as president he would “get along very nicely with Putin” and “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow. Russia has denied interfering in American politics.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham and Susan Heavey)