Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty Thursday to acting on behalf of the Russian government in her efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) and make inroads with top Republican officials.
But in Moscow, the plea deal means little.
Russian officials continue to claim Butina is innocent, despite the fact that she is now facing up to five years in prison. The stance flies in the face of all available evidence, which showed Butina working at the behest of Alexander Torshin, a sanctioned Russian official who has been accused in Europe of overseeing massive money-laundering operations. Butina’s goals appear to have been lobbying to lift sanctions on Russia, without registering as a foreign agent.
Hours before Butina entered her plea, the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded on Twitter that she be “release[d] as soon as possible.”
The Russian MFA had been leading the charge to free Butina, even starting the #FreeMariaButina hashtag and changing their profile picture to a shot of Butina. Twitter accounts for the Russian Embassies in Estonia and Cambodia also continue to feature Butina as their profile picture, although the Russian Missions to the OSCE and United Nations no longer do.
#Zakharova: We demand that Washington observe legal rights of Maria Butina & release her as soon as possible. @RusEmbUSA provides the detained Russian citizen with all assistance & support needed | #FreeMariaButina pic.twitter.com/n46OSwI10V
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) December 13, 2018
MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova fleshed out Moscow’s stance early Thursday morning. Speaking at a press conference, Zakharova referred to Butina as a “prisoner of conscience.”
She also claimed that Butina, who has been held since July, has been subjected to “physical and psychological experiments.” It’s unclear what Zakharova was referring to, as Butina’s lawyers haven’t referred to any “experiments.”
“Everything that happens around her has nothing to do with justice, with law,” Zakharova said. “This investigation, all of this, is exclusively political pressure and blackmail.”
The comments echo those from Butina’s father, who wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming that the U.S. was subjecting Butina to “sophisticated torture.”
Zakharova’s boss doesn’t seem to share her view. As Putin said on Tuesday, he had no idea until recently who Butina was. “She risks 15 years in jail — for what?” Putin said. “I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her.”
Torshin and Putin aren’t considered close, but the accusations involving Torshin — both as it pertains to money laundering and handling Butina’s operations — place him firmly in the Kremlin’s kleptocratic orbit. Torshin, who spent the day tweeting about Kyrgyzstan, had previously worked as the deputy governor of the Russian central bank, retiring only two weeks ago.
Butina, meanwhile, leaves behind a strong track record of success in working at Torshin’s behest. She not only managed to question then-candidate Donald Trump about his work, but also met Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), as well as a raft of leaders at the NRA.
Butina also helped organize a post-election dinner in Washington, D.C., which included Rockefeller scion George D. O’Neill, Jr., Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY).
Thus far, no GOP officials nor the NRA have commented on Butina’s plea, including the number of officials and leaders she was able to personally access.
The plea deal is a boon for American prosecutors, and for investigators attempting to assess the full scope of Russia’s interference efforts. Butina will allow law enforcement officials to interview her about any related crimes — or any other crimes she’s aware of — and will testify before any grand juries or related trials.
She will almost certainly be deported once she finishes her sentence, which will likely be handed down early next year.