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Suspected secret agent used sex in covert plan, prosecutors say

Maria Butina
Maria Butina(Associated Press/File 2013)

WASHINGTON — A Russian woman charged with secretly acting on Moscow’s behalf was working as a covert agent in the United States and was recently in contact with a suspected Russian intelligence official as part of a “yearslong” conspiracy, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

They described a double life in which the woman, Maria Butina, studied at American University and dated a Republican operative from South Dakota, but secretly stayed in contact with a high-ranking official in Moscow and took part in the romance simply as part of the job. She offered sex to another American in “exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors wrote.

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The new details about Butina, 29, were disclosed in a court filing in which prosecutors argued that she should be held without bond because she was a flight risk. She was moving money out of the country, had her boxes packed, and had terminated her lease, court papers showed.

“The defendant is considered to be on par with other covert Russian agents,” prosecutors said. Butina was arrested on Sunday in Washington and accused of being an unregistered foreign agent of Russia. A judge ordered her held without bond during an appearance in federal court in Washington on Wednesday.

Her exploits in the United States were believed to be directed by Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who has ties to the country’s security services. “The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination, and preparation,” prosecutors wrote.

FBI agents said they discovered evidence that she had contact information for officials thought to be employed by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency.

Butina was also spotted by FBI agents dining with a Russian diplomat in March 2018 before the official was slated to the leave the country. US officials said the diplomat was actually a suspected Russian intelligence official.

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Their contact coincided with a move by the Trump administration that same month to expel 60 Russians, including 12 people identified as intelligence officials, over the poisoning of a British informant. It is not clear from the court documents whether the departing intelligence official was among those who were kicked out of the United States.

As part of the investigation, FBI agents discovered messages between Butina and the official believed to be Torshin in March 2017. In one instance, he praised Butina after a series of articles were published about her, likening her to Anna Chapman, another redheaded Russian woman arrested along with others by the FBI in 2010 and charged with being unregistered foreign agents. Chapman was accused of working for Russia’s foreign intelligence service and was later sent to Russia as part of a prisoner swap. Chapman was also assigned by her Russian handlers to recruit sources in US policymaking circles.

“Good morning! How are you faring there in the rays of the new fame? Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin wrote. “She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones.”

The court filing also said that Butina relied on an unidentified Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin for money. In Twitter messages and e-mails, Butina describes the Russian as her “funder.”

Prosecutors said a 56-year-old American romantically linked to Butina was helping her leave the country. While authorities did not identify the man, he is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime conservative activist and National Rifle Association member from South Dakota. The New York Times has previously reported that he had a close relationship with Butina.

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Investigators said that to Butina, their relationship was meaningless, “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” and she complained about living with him.

According to prosecutors, Butina came to the United States falsely on a student visa. She attended classes at American University and completed the coursework with outside help as part of her ruse.

Butina traveled widely through the United States since at least 2015, often on visas that were issued after she was invited to events hosted by the NRA. At rifle association annual conferences, which she attended with Torshin, she made a point to meet Republicans with presidential aspirations, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. At an event in Las Vegas in 2015, she questioned Donald Trump about his foreign policy goals and his opinions on economic sanctions against Russia.

After she was granted the visa to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at American University in August 2016, she expanded her network of connections within Republican gun rights and conservative religious groups.

Prosecutors allege that she lied on her visa application, claiming that she had quit working as a special assistant to Torshin. In fact, she continued to serve as his assistant up until her arrest, prosecutors said.