Maria Butina, founder and board member of Russia's Pravo na Oruzhiye gun-rights movement, was arrested and charged on Monday with "work[ing] at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government," according to a statement from the Department of Justice.
The Daily Beast reported that the DOJ alleged she was acting "as an agent of Russia...by developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organisations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation."
Butina's lawyer Robert Driscoll, a prominent conservative, says she is just a high-performing grad student. The 29-year-old moved to Washington, D.C., on a student visa in 2016 to attend graduate school.
"Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation," he said in a statement on Monday. "She is a Russian national in the United States on a student visa who recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a Master's Degree in International Relations and 4.0 grade point average." Some Russian politicians are calling the allegations a "witch hunt" and "part of the anti-Russian machine."
The FBI alleges otherwise, saying in a court document that she sought to create a "back channel" between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in the lead-up to the 2016 election, acting on behalf of Alexander Torshin, a high-level Russian politician and lifetime National Rifle Association member to whom she has served as a special assistant.
The NRA has been supportive of her group — which she no longer leads after moving to the US, according to Russian media — and she has made many connections with members of the GOP and the NRA. According to the Daily Beast's 2017 reporting, she started a business with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican political operative.
She also reportedly threw a birthday party just a few days after the 2016 election, which was attended by Trump campaign aides, where she, according to two sources speaking to the Daily Beast, told attendees that she was part of the Trump campaign's communications with Russia.
Her former professor Svetlana Savranskaya said Butina made similar pronouncements on campus. "She said so in my class. And she said so several times in the last semester," Savranskaya, who is also a staffer at the National Security Archive, told the Daily Beast. "She is a former journalist, so she keeps up her connections in Russia. And she also works and [claims to] keep connections with a member of the Russian Duma."
Butina founded Pravo na Oruzhiye, which at several thousand members (10,000 according to one source) is the largest gun-rights group in Russia, in 2011. Russia has relatively strict gun legislation, with handguns generally prohibited and extensive background checks required, but her group wants to normalize gun ownership for the purpose of self-protection.
She was born in Barnaul, a city in Siberia, in a family of engineers and has worked as a local journalist and on political campaigns for the United Russia party. She has also led several companies, including a furniture purveyor. On her Instagram, which she hasn't updated since 2015, she's posted photos of herself with Russian politicians like Torshin, workout pics, and photos of wild boar that she had just killed.
Butina faces a hearing in D.C. federal court on Wednesday. Driscoll, her attorney, claims that her goal was to "promote a better relationship between the two nations" through "open and public networking" rather than "covert propaganda."