On Thursday, Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy with a love of guns, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S. According to the New York Times, she admitted to being involved in Russian efforts to open up unofficial lines of communication with members of the NRA and of the Republican Party.
Butina, a 30-year-old Russian national who was attending grad school in D.C., worked as an assistant to Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and an ally to Vladimir Putin. Over the past few years, she became closely involved with conservative circles and the NRA, even developing a “personal relationship” with Republican operative Paul Erickson. (Her lawyers say the relationship was genuine, and provided a video of the couple singing a song from Beauty and the Beast as proof of this fact.)
She’s been held in jail since her arrest in July, and now awaits sentencing following her guilty plea. In the meantime, let’s break down what this all means for her.
What, exactly, did she plead guilty to?
When she was first arrested, Butina faced a slew of salacious accusations, including conspiracy and offering sex in exchange for a power; prosecutors later admitted several of these claims were unfounded. On Thursday, she pleaded guilty to just one charge: conspiring with a senior Russian official — whom CNN identified as Torshin — in order to infiltrate the conservative movement, from 2015 until her arrest in 2017.
Butina admitted to working with an unnamed American political operative under the direction of Russian officials in an attempt to forge relationships with NRA members and conservative leaders — including Donald Trump. (According to the Times, Butina was involved in two separate efforts to schedule a meeting between Trump and Putin in 2016, both of which failed.)
She’s also agreed to turn over any evidence she might have for any crimes she’s aware of, submit an accounting of her financial assets, be interviewed (and waive the right to counsel) by law enforcement, and testify in grand juries or trials in Washington and elsewhere.
So, about those other accusations …
In September, prosecutors backed down after accusing Butina of trading sex for power, writing in a court filing that they misunderstood a joke she texted to a friend as an attempt to use sex to infiltrate Republican politics.
They also dropped accusations that she was in contact with Russian intelligence agencies, and walked back the claim that she was using Erickson to get access to other Americans. And, for what it’s worth, they acknowledged that she really was in the U.S. for a graduate degree, not just posing as a student as a cover.
What happens to her now?
According to CNN, a hearing has been set for February to discuss Butina’s sentencing; she has agreed to remain in prison until then. Butina faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported after serving her sentence, but since she pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, there’s hope that prosecutors could ask for a reduced sentence — the Times notes she might be let out on the time she’s already served.
Meanwhile, Butina has reportedly been trying to speak to journalists from jail, and has asked other inmates to speak to her lawyer and to the media on her behalf, so it’s probably safe to say that this isn’t the last we’ve heard from her.