A Russian woman with ties to a US gun lobby has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to act as a spy for Moscow.
Maria Butina, 29, was arrested on Sunday at her home in Washington DC and appeared in federal court on Monday, before Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson.
She was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States, without prior notification to the attorney general. The maximum penalty for conspiracy is five years in prison.
Butina’s lawyer, Robert Neil Driscoll, told the judge that Butina’s residence was searched by the FBI in April, that she had testified for eight hours before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session several months ago.
He said her arrest was premature, adding: “we have been offering to cooperate with the government the entire time.”
Butina did not speak during the brief hearing other than to state her name, and was held without bail. She will appear in court again on Wednesday for a preliminary hearing.
Butina, 29, is being held without bail
The charges against Butina come days after the justice department unveiled an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly conspiring to hack Democrats in 2016.
They also came shortly after President Donald Trump cast doubt on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, in an extraordinary joint news conference with President Vladimir Putin.
Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said Butina’s arrest was a Russophobic backlash against the positive talks between Mr Trump and Mr Putin in Helsinki.
“We had to expect something similar, unfortunately. The anti-Russian machine is resisting with all possible means,” he said.
“This could be a reaction to the results of the summit by an out-of-control machine of American hawks and security officials.”
Butina is accused of developing relationships with American politicians and a “gun rights organisation”.
In the court documents FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson wrote that Butina was attempting to “establish a ‘back channel’ communication for representatives of the Government of Russia.”
The affidavit also contains apparent communications, by direct message on Twitter, between Butina and the unnamed Russian official.
“Your political star has risen in the sky,” the official told Butina, according to the Washington Post.
“Now it is important to rise to the zenith and not burn out (fall) prematurely.”
They later discussed the “Russia-USA friendship society.”
In 2017, Butina and the official attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the affidavit states.
Mr Driscoll said during the hearing that Butina was a student, and not a spy. He said that she had recently earned a master’s degree in international relations from American University.
“Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” he said.
“The substance of the charge in the complaint is overblown.”
He said the government was attempting to make such actions as attending the prayer breakfast into “nefarious acts,” when Butina was merely networking to develop relationships with Americans.
In February 2017 The Daily Beast reported that Butina had introduced herself as, variously, a Russian central bank staffer, a leading gun rights advocate, a “representative of the Russian Federation,” a Washington, DC, graduate student, a journalist, and a connection between Team Trump and Russia.
Butina, a former Siberian furniture store owner, founded a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms and according to the Washington Post became an assistant to Russian central banker and former senator Alexander Torshin, who is a lifetime member of the NRA.
She began making contact with NRA members and other American gun enthusiasts in 2013, the paper reported. On several occasions she reportedly hosted NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow, including one delegation that included former Milwaukee Sheriff Dave Clarke – a high profile Trump supporter.
She and Mr Torshin also attended a series of NRA events in the United States starting in 2014.
In June 2015, as Mr Trump announced his candidacy, Butina wrote a column in the National Interest, a conservative US magazine, suggesting that only by electing a Republican could the US and Russia hope to improve relations.
The next month, she attended a town hall meeting in Las Vegas where Mr Trump was speaking, and took the microphone to publicly ask Mr Trump: “What will be your foreign politics, especially in the relations with my country?”
Mr Trump replied: “I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin.”
Maria Butina founded a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms
Butina also attended an NRA convention in May 2016, where a Republican operative named Paul Erickson – who describes himself as a veteran of six presidential campaigns and a former Reagan White House staffer – worked to get Mr Torshin a meeting with Trump.
In an email to the campaign, Mr Erickson referred to Mr Torshin as “President Putin’s emissary” in an effort to improve relations with the United States.
Butina and Mr Torshin failed to meet Mr Trump but did, however, have brief interaction with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, at the event. Mr Trump Jr. has said the interaction was brief and not memorable.
Butina then accompanied Mr Erickson to Mr Trump’s inauguration.
Mr Torshin was placed under sanction by the US in April this year.