News & Opinion | July 18, 2018 10:13 am

How an Alleged Russian Spy Gained Access to Elite Conservative Circles

Maria Butina attended the most important events of the U.S. conservative movement.

Mariia Butina, whose name is sometimes spelled Maria, was arrested in Washington on July 15, 2018 and appeared in court on July 16, the Justice Department said. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

Maria Butina was indicted this week on charges of being a covert Russian agent. But for the past five years, the young Russian political-science student had made her way to the most important events of the U.S. conservative movement. She struck up friendships with the influential leaders of the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference. She spoke highly of her efforts to promote gun rights in Russia and said she had a strong interest in U.S. affairs. She sought encounters with politicians, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and then Donald Trump. By August 2016, when she moved to the U.S. on a student visa, the FBI was watching, reports The Washington Post. Officials decided to track her movements to determine who she was meeting and what she was doing in the United States. She was arrested when she was preparing to leave Washington for South Dakota, where it would be harder to track her.

U.S. officials and new court filings say that her activities show the breadth and sophistication of Russia’s operations in the States. Court filings say that while 12 Russian intelligence officers in Moscow tried to affect the 2016 presidential campaign, Butina was roaming the country and building ties with conservative figures.

“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.”