A Russian woman accused of working as an agent for the Russian government to build ties to the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group in the United States and infiltrate Republican Party circles is expected to plead guilty Thursday in federal court.
Maria Butina was charged in July with acting illegally as an unregistered Russian agent and conspiracy. She initially entered a not-guilty plea.
As part of an agreement with prosecutors to change her plea to guilty, the 30-year-old is expected to cooperate with prosecutors.
Butina allegedly developed a personal relationship with an NRA-linked Republican activist, Paul Erickson, and lived with him. Butina also enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, where she earned a master's degree in international relations earlier this year.
The U.S. Justice Department alleged that Butina was a 'covert Russian agent' who maintained connections with Russian spies in a mission aimed at penetrating 'the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.' They alleged that her work in the United States was directed by a former Russian lawmaker who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader said Tuesday he had never heard of Butina until her July arrest. Putin said that when he asked Russian intelligence services for information about her, he was told that 'no one knows anything about her.'
The Butina case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing, 19-month investigation into whether President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the presidency and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice to try to thwart the probe.