WASHINGTON – For nearly five years, the young Russian political-science student was an unusual fixture at the most important events of the U.S. conservative movement.
Maria Butina, who pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of being a covert Russian agent, struck up friendships with the influential leaders of the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference, touting her interest in U.S. affairs and efforts to promote gun rights in Vladimir Putin's restrictive Russia. She sidled up to GOP presidential candidates, seeking first an encounter with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then, after his rising candidacy stumbled, with Donald Trump.
But by August 2016, when she moved to the U.S. on a student visa, the FBI was watching, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Rather than question or confront her, they said, officials decided to track her movements to determine whom she was meeting and what she was doing in the U.S. — the kind of monitoring that is not uncommon when foreign nationals are suspected of working on behalf of a foreign government.
By then, Butina had already publicly quizzed Trump about his views on Russia and briefly met his eldest son at an NRA convention. After the FBI began monitoring her, Butina attended a ball at Trump's inauguration and tried to arrange a meeting between him and a senior Russian government official at last year's annual National Prayer Breakfast.
By 2017, after she had enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., Butina began probing groups on the left as well, trying unsuccessfully to interview a D.C.-based civil rights group about its cyber-vulnerabilities for what she said was a school project, according to a person familiar with her outreach.
On Sunday, alerted that she was preparing to leave Washington for South Dakota, where monitoring her would be more difficult, federal authorities arrested Butina.
The 29-year-old was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday, accused of working to infiltrate American political groups as part of a scheme "to advance the interests of the Russian Federation."
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, said she is merely a student with interest in politics and a desire to network with Americans.
U.S. officials allege that her activities show the breadth and sophistication of Russia's influence operations in the U.S. At the same time prosecutors said 12 Russian intelligence officers in Moscow sought to affect the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking and releasing stolen documents from Democrats, Butina was roaming the country, building ties on the Kremlin's behalf with powerful conservative figures, according to court filings.
"The filing of this latest complaint is just further evidence of how far-reaching and carefully planned Russia's assault on American democracy has been," said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the Russia investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe. "To anyone who doubts that the Russian counterintelligence threat is real, this complaint should be further proof that it's a threat that is live, real and urgent for the country to grapple with."
People who encountered Butina said the gregarious redhead had a life story that appealed to many activists and officials she met at GOP events. She told a conservative radio show in 2015 that she grew up in the woods of Siberia, where her father taught her and her sister to hunt bears and wolves.
In Moscow, she began a career in public relations and founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms to advocate for the loosening of Russia's restrictive gun laws.
Soon, her group acquired a powerful patron, a Russian senator from Putin's party who later became the deputy director of Russia's central bank: Alexander Torshin, a lifetime member of the NRA who had ties with Christian conservatives through an annual prayer breakfast he helped host in Moscow.
"She was like a novelty," said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who met Butina at a handful of conservative events in 2016.
In March 2016, she e-mailed an American contact that Putin's administration had expressed approval for her and Torshin's efforts to build a "communication channel" in the U.S., according to court filings.
On the night of Trump's election victory, the filings say, she messaged Torshin, "I'm going to sleep. It's 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders."