WASHINGTON (CN) – Blaming herself for actions that she said had destroyed her life, admitted Russian agent Maria Butina made an emotional but ultimately unsuccessful bid Friday to get deported with time served.
“Just an apology will never be enough for my mistakes, dear judge,” said the 30-year-old Butina, who pleaded guilty in December to one charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent at the direction of a senior Russian official.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan said she believed Butina’s apology was sincere but still handed down an 18-month sentence.
Butina admitted as part of her plea that she began working with former Russian official Alexander Torshin in 2015 to create a backchannel of communication between U.S. political figures and Russia, a mission that she carried out by infiltrating the powerful National Rifle Association.
“If I had known to register as a foreign agent I would have done so without delay,” said Butina, who appeared in court today wearing a white shirt underneath a green prison top and matching pants. Her hair, ordinarily braided, hung straight and loose, reaching the top of her low back.
Butina noted that her parents had learned of her arrest on the morning news. They, too, have suffered since her arrest last July, she said.
“I destroyed my own life as well,” she added.
Before returning to her seat at the table with her defense team, Butina made one final appeal for the judge’s compassion.
“Now I beg for mercy, for the chance to go home and restart my life,” Butina said.
Judge Chutkan agreed to let the nine months Butina has spent in jail already count as time served. The result is that Butina will spend another nine months in prison before then getting deported.
“This was no mere failure to register,” Chutkan said.
Butina’s defense team has repeatedly portrayed her as a hardworking international student who came to the United States to get a graduate degree in international relations.
Butina reiterated that narrative in her comments Friday, telling the judge that, like many others, she came to the United States to better her life and learn about American politics.
But she said she also sought to improve relations between the country she said she had grown to love and her motherland, Russia.
Noting the irony, Butina said Friday she had instead harmed relations between the adversaries.
Chutkan reflected on Butina’s educational efforts, calling her a hardworking student, but she rejected the motives Butina presented for coming to the United States.
“She was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system,” Chutkan said.
Chutkan found that Butina’s efforts were undertaken for the benefit of Russia at a time when the country was actively interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That she failed to register as a foreign agent made her all the more likely to establish the connections that she did, the judge added.
The government has conceded that Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense, but says her clandestine work to collect information valuable to the Russian government nevertheless posed a national-security threat.
A declaration submitted by former FBI assistant director of the counterintelligence division Robert Anderson Jr. characterized Butina’s activities as “part of a deliberate intelligence operation by the Russian Federation.”
That operation, Anderson assessed, could assist Russia’s effort to recruit vulnerable Americans for years.
At the end of the hearing, Butina exited through a door at the back of the courtroom. Her defense attorney Robert Driscoll told reporters outside he found it “curious” that Chutkan mentioned Russian election interference during the hearing.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia handled Butina’s prosecution, not special counsel Robert Mueller. Her name appears nowhere in the 448-page report Mueller produced summarizing the results of his investigation.
“Had she been involved in any of that, I would imagine, special counsel Mueller would have mentioned it somewhere in his 400 pages if she had anything to do with it,” Driscoll said. “But he did not.”
Driscoll said he disagrees “strongly” with Chutkan’s sentence.
“I feel terrible for Maria’s family,” he added.
He then directed his comments to Butina’s father.
“We hope to get your daughter home as soon as we can,” he said. “I wish we could have done more to get her out sooner.”
Driscoll’s co-counsel Alfred Carry said during the hearing that Butia “is not a spy,” nor has she ever worked for the Russian government or Russian intelligence.
“America is looking for enemies wherever we can find them,” he said.
Arguing on behalf of the government, Erik Kenerson said Butina’s failure to register as a foreign agent deprived the government of the ability to properly weigh her bid for a visa.
“That’s the whole point,” Kenerson said.
Kenerson also emphasized that Butina’s crime was “undoubtedly serious,” more so than a registration offense.
He asked the judge not to lose sight of the fact that Butina’s activities in the United States were done for the benefit of Russia, a country that targets the United States with malign operations, he noted.
Butina’s grasp of exactly how Russia would use the material she provided “does not minimize the potential harm to the United States,” Kenerson added.
Though Butina got a harsher sentence than she hoped for Friday, the judge appeared to have been swayed by the 24 letters testifying to Butina’s character from family, friends and former professors.
After handing down the sentence, Chutkan imparted some wisdom to Butina that she said she often gives to defendants passing through her courtroom.
“You are not the worst thing you’ve done,” the judge said. “You’re a young woman. You’re smart, you’re hard working, and you have a future ahead of you. I wish you the best of luck.”