Maria Butina Sentenced for Role in Russian Influence Campaign

WASHINGTON — The Russian graduate student who ran a secret operation to influence conservative Americans was sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison, ending what prosecutors called a lengthy effort to create inroads with officials potentially useful to Russia in the future.

The woman, Maria Butina, 30, pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to act as a foreign agent, admitting that she was part of an organized Russian effort to create unofficial lines of communication between Russia and influential Republicans.

Prosecutors initially described her as a charming operative who had traded sex for access to powerful conservative circles, including the National Rifle Association, though they later acknowledged being “mistaken” on the most salacious aspect of those accusations. Ms. Butina’s legal team said she was an ambitious, well-meaning graduate student who just wanted to improve relations between the United States and Russia.

Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia accepted the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation, saying Ms. Butina’s conduct “was a threat to our country’s democratic institutions.” She added, “This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student.”

While Ms. Butina’s case did not arise from the special counsel’s investigation into Russia election interference, that inquiry hung over her case. Judge Chutkan noted that Ms. Butina was funneling Russia information about the American political situation at the same time that Russian intelligence operatives were waging a covert campaign to illegally influence the 2016 presidential race.

In a court filing, Robert Anderson Jr. a retired F.B.I. counterintelligence official, said Ms. Butina was engaged in a typical “spot-and-assess” effort to identify Americans who could become targets for Russian intelligence.

“Butina provided the Russian Federation with information that skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States,” Mr. Anderson wrote. He said efforts like hers help Russians identify midlevel targets who lack direct access to classified or sensitive information but whose government or political connections could potentially be exploited.

Erik Michael Kenerson, an assistant United States attorney, told the judge that while Ms. Butina did not transmit classified secrets, the information that the defendant funneled to Russia “had serious potential to harm the U.S. political process.”

Ms. Butina’s lawyers said she cooperated with prosecutors for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and with Senate investigators scrutinizing Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, including providing copies of her communications with Aleksandr P. Torshin, a Russian government official with whom she worked closely for years. Prosecutors said Ms. Butina strove to set up unofficial lines of communications with American political figures at Mr. Torshin’s direction, and fed the information she collected to him.

In return for her cooperation, prosecutors said, they shaved six months off their recommended sentence. She will be given credit for the nine months she has already served — much if not all of it in solitary confinement — and deported once her prison time is up.

Starting in 2015, Ms. Butina worked in the United States to meet people in conservative Republican groups, including the National Rifle Association. She began a relationship with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative, and she shared details of her meetings and the people she met with Mr. Torshin.

Her defense team had argued for probation, saying Ms. Butina was guilty of a crime of ignorance in failing to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent.

“Nothing about Maria has been secret,” one of her lawyers, Alfred Carry, said. “Her agenda was better relations with the United States.” Robert Driscoll, another defense lawyer, said the government’s expert “did not name anyone who was spotted or assessed” by Ms. Butina.

In a tearful voice, Ms. Butina told the judge that she never intended to harm the American political process.

“The United States has always been kind to me,” she said. “I just didn’t register because I didn’t know to.”