A U.S. grand jury has stepped up criminal charges against a woman accused of acting as a covert agent for Russia by cultivating ties with U.S. politicians, while Russian officials denounced the case.
The U.S. grand jury late on July 17 charged Maria Butina, 29, a student at American University in Washington and founder of a Russian guns-rights group, with conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government.
The charges against Butina are criminal offenses that carry maximum penalties of up to 10 years in prison, but she has not been charged with espionage or with being a member of a Russian intelligence service.
Butina was arrested on July 15 and is scheduled to appear on July 18 in a U.S. court in Washington, the Justice Department said.
U.S. prosecutors have accused Butina of cultivating ties with U.S. politicians and political organizations at the direction of a high-level official at the Russian Central Bank who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury because of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Court records did not name the official, but Butina has appeared in numerous photographs on her Facebook page with Aleksandr Torshin, the deputy head of the Russian Central Bank who was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in April.
Media have reported that Butina was working for Torshin, who has not commented publicly on the case.
'An Extremely Energetic Person'
Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, says she is not a Russian agent, and the Russian news agency Interfax on July 17 quoted a Russian associate of Butina as saying that she was a political-science student who was thinking of returning to Russia, not a spy.
Russian political "expert" Andrei Kolyadin said he hired Butina as an interpreter last year when he attended a National Prayer Breakfast with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington. The annual breakfasts attract leading U.S. conservative politicians.
Kolyadin in the interview with Interfax appeared to acknowledge one of the charges in the U.S. complaint against Butina -- that she organized dinners and meetings with U.S. lawmakers and administration officials to discuss matters of interest to Russia.
"She is an extremely energetic person with plenty of ideas. At all meetings, she fervently supported our premise that 'A bad peace is better than the best of wars,'" Kolyadin told Interfax.
"These ideas were constantly discussed at meetings with U.S. congressmen and some members of the presidential administration.... And we discussed how one needs to heed Russia in the international arena, and it is better to have friendly ties with Russia," he said.
The Justice Department said in its complaint that Butina worked with two unnamed U.S. citizens and her boss in Moscow to try to influence U.S. politics and infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. gun-rights organization, to establish "back channel" lines of communication with U.S. politicians.
'Dangerous For Russians'
Nikolai Kovalyov, a State Duma deputy who was formerly head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), charged that U.S. law enforcement agencies announced the case against Butina during Trump's summit with Putin on July 16 to undermine the leaders' efforts to improve Russian-U.S. ties.
"Today, U.S. security agencies are working against their own president by interfering in politics," Kovalyov told Russian news agencies.
He said the case against a Russian who he claimed went to the United States merely to study and indulge in her enthusiasm for guns sets a "dangerous precedent."
"The U.S., like England, is becoming a country dangerous for Russians to be in, because anyone can be accused of anything there," he said. "I mean, anyone can be grabbed and accused of acting in Russia's interests and being a Russian agent."
Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, also was quoted by Interfax as saying that Butina's arrest was intended to undermine the Putin-Trump summit and sets a "bad example."
"I would very much ask the U.S. authorities to cease the practice of launching criminal prosecution for noninclusion in the register of foreign agents, because this sets a 'wonderful' example for hotheads among our lawmakers who would say, 'We,too, can lock up for five years the heads of organizations that refuse to be included in the register of foreign agents,'" Fedotov said.
Fedotov claimed the Butina case was "similar" to a criminal case opened against Russian human rights activist Valentina Cherevatenko last year for failing to register as a foreign agent.
He told Interfax that he had to work to convince Russian prosecutors that "there was nothing criminal about [Cherevatenko's] actions," and he hoped the U.S. court will come to the same conclusion about Butina.