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Russian operative Maria Butina sentenced to 18 months in prison

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Image: Mariia Butina speaks to a crowd in Moscow in 2013
Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. -
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Maria Butina, the Russian operative who used her NRA activism to illegally infiltrate conservative political circles, was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a federal judge on Friday.

The 30-year-old American University graduate student pleaded guilty this past December to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign official, following her arrest in July.

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan gave Butina credit for nine months of time served. The judge ordered her deported as soon as her time is up.

"You have a future ahead of you. I wish you the best luck," the judge said.

Butina addressed the court and insisted she wasn't working as a spy, and only wanted to mend Russia-US relations.

"I came here to better my life to get a degree. I wished to mend relations while building my resume," she said. "It was for these actions and my own ignorance that I'm here."

But the defendant admitted to harming relations between the two superpowers.

"It has never been my intention to harm American people but I did so by not notifying your government. It has harmed mt attempts to improve relations, " she said. "I have three degrees, but now I'm a convicted felon with no money, no job, and no freedom."

She added: "Instead of building peace, I created discord."

Butina admitted to working with her Republican operative boyfriend Paul Erickson — identified in court papers as "US Person 1" — at the behest of a Russian official in order "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics … for the benefit of the Russian Federation," according to court papers.

The Russian operative also considered sex as part of her arsenal to gain influence.

"For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than US Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization," prosecutors wrote in opposing her bail last year.

"Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with US Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with US Person 1."

Butina, in December 2015, helped orchestrate a trip by NRA members to Moscow where they met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, court papers say.

Defence lawyers had asked Judge Chutkan for no jail time, writing in a sentencing memo that she has "always been willing to cooperate with the government."

"Maria's cooperation has been full, transparent, and complete. Yet, what makes her case especially noteworthy is that, as a young Russian national who has accepted that deportation will be part of the resolution of her case, Maria has willingly cooperated with the United States despite the geopolitical tension between the two countries," the memo reads.

Prosecutors conceded that "Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense," but said she was still working to the detriment of the United States.

"She was not a trained intelligence officer. But the actions she took were nonetheless taken on behalf of the Russian Official for the benefit of the Russian Federation, and those actions had the potential to damage the national security of the United States," according to the government.