Maria Butina, a Russian citizen with links to American gun lobby group the National Rifle Association (NRA), has pleaded guilty spying charges in a US federal court.
Butina, who was studying at a US university pleaded guilty Friday morning (Australian time) to attempting to infiltrate Republican political circles and influence US relations with Russia before and after the 2016 presidential election.
Butina has been jailed since her arrest in July and likely will remain behind bars. The Russian government has actively called for her release.
Broadcaster CNN reported that the 30-year-old told the court she had acted “under direction of” a Russian official. The extent of her cooperation with US prosecutors is not yet clear.
Butina allegedly forged ties with the NRA to advance the Kremlin’s agenda, including working with people connected to the 2016 presidential election campaign.
She has been charged by prosecutors in Washington and not the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the probe into Russian election meddling.
The guilty plea means Butina will be the first Russian citizen to be convicted of working to shape US policy around the election campaign.
Mr Mueller has brought criminal charges against a series of Russian individuals and entities but those cases are still pending.
Butina’s lawyers have argued that her interactions with the gun lobby and other conservative groups is protected by free speech laws, although the plea indicates she may have fallen foul of regulations.
As part of her plea deal, Butina pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
She will likely be deported from the US after her sentence is completed.
The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, although the defence noted that federal sentencing guidelines recommend no jail time to six months.
Authorities charged that Butina’s work was directed by Alexander Torshin, a Russian government bank official now under sanction by the Treasury Department for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to court papers filed ahead of the court hearing, Butina met with US politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups – including two National Prayer Breakfast events – and organised Russian-American “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington with the goal of “reporting back to Moscow” what she had learned.
She hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, The New York Times reported.