RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A federal judge has ordered Maria Butina to serve 18 months in prison. You might remember Butina is the Russian agent who ran an operation to influence conservative Americans through her connections to the NRA and other groups. NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department and is in the studio with me now.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, there.
MARTIN: So Butina pleaded guilty late last year to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. What did that conspiracy look like?
LUCAS: Well, basically, what it boils down to is that she was working to infiltrate conservative Republican Party circles in the United States, including the National Rifle Association, the National Prayer Breakfast, to try to, essentially, build back-channel ties, back-channel communications between these influential Americans and the Russian government. And what she said in her plea agreement was, essentially, she was doing this to benefit the Russian government.
MARTIN: How? What did the Russians want out of those relationships? Do we know?
LUCAS: Well, a lot of this is - boils down to kind of how you look at it. If you look at it from the U.S. government perspective, this is part of an influence operation that the government - that the Russian government runs to, essentially, wield influence over the U.S. political process, over influential Americans who have influence over the U.S. political process. They also note that Butina was acting at the direction of a Russian government official by the name of Alexander Torshin, and so that all of this is, essentially, part of Russian intelligence operations writ large that work to the detriment of the United States.
MARTIN: And so there was a connection to the 2016 election. It was part of Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
LUCAS: No. This is actually separate from the investigation that special counsel Robert Mueller conducted. This was actually an investigation that was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office here in Washington, D.C., separate from Mueller's Russia probe.
MARTIN: She has already served nine months. Are they counting that as time served against her sentence?
LUCAS: It will be. So her sentence today imposed was 18 months. She will get credit for the nine months that she's already been in U.S. custody. Now, her defense attorneys asked for just time served. And what the judge in this case, Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, said was, this is not simply the case of a graduate student. This is not a misunderstanding of a graduate student trying to build positive relationship between two countries. This is something more nefarious than that, is what she, essentially, said.
MARTIN: What are the Russians saying? What's the Russian government saying about her?
LUCAS: Well, this case has become kind of a scandal on an international stage in the sense that prosecutors, at one point, portrayed her as almost like a "Red Sparrow" figure from that Jennifer Lawrence film. They later backed away from that. But this case has generated headlines. The Russians have said that she's, essentially, being victimized here and that she is really just a Russian graduate student who came to the U.S. to try to learn about the two countries. But again, the Russian government and the U.S. government are going to have very different perspectives on what was going on here.
MARTIN: What do we know about what happens when she completes her sentence? Will she be allowed to go back to Russia, assuming she wants to go back to Russia?
LUCAS: She will actually be deported after she completes her sentence. The other thing that was notable in her case today - she spoke to the court before she was sentenced, and she asked - she said, you know, I feel horrible about what has happened. She apologized to the American people, said that she takes responsibility for her actions. And the last thing that she said to the judge before she wrapped up was, please allow me - I beg for mercy, and please allow me to go home and restart my life.
MARTIN: NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for us.
Thanks. We appreciate it.
LUCAS: My pleasure.
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