On a campus full of ambitious students aiming to land influential U.S. government and policy jobs, Maria Butina cut an unusual profile.
Butina’s cellphone case was emblazoned with a famous photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin riding shirtless on a horse. She would buy friends rounds of vodka at Russia House, the Dupont Circle restaurant popular with the Russian diplomatic set, sometimes challenging male friends to down horseradish-infused shots. She bragged to classmates that she had worked for the Russian government.
Butina’s arrest last week on charges that she was acting as an unregistered Russian agent and allegations that she has ties to Russian intelligence rattled those who knew her at American University, where she spent two years in the global security program at the School of International Service.
Wouldn’t a Russian agent have been more covert, many at the school now wonder, and have worked to keep her Kremlin advocacy under wraps?
‘She was like a novelty’: How alleged Russian agent Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles
“It’s sort of disbelief,” said one person who knew Butina at AU, describing the campus reaction. “Can you imagine you just moved to D.C. for school from, like, rural Pennsylvania and you find out a couple months later you’re sitting next to a Russian spy?”
To others, however, her indictment on federal charges validated their unsettling suspicions.
Butina’s embrace of Russia was so public that people affiliated with AU worried about possible links to the Kremlin and alerted school officials during her tenure there, according to three people familiar with the conversations. University officials did not appear alarmed and did not appear to take any immediate action, they said.
Mark Story, a spokesman for the university, said he could not comment on Butina’s case but said generally that “education, service and integrity are at the heart of who we are at American University.”
“When concerns about student conduct, safety or security are brought to the university’s attention, we evaluate those concerns and investigate or involve outside partners as appropriate,” Story said.
This portrait of Butina’s stint as a full-time student in Washington is drawn from the accounts of more than a dozen people who have encountered her during the past 18 months. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing federal investigation into her activities.
During her time on the manicured campus in a tony Northwest Washington neighborhood, Butina embraced the opportunities available to graduate students at the university. She had a student job with a workspace near the office of former Obama administration national security adviser Susan E. Rice, a visiting research fellow. She co-authored a paper on cybersecurity with two professors at the business school.
She studied cybersecurity policy at the School of International Service, which prides itself on drawing students from around the world for a program designed to educate future global leaders. One person affiliated with the program noted that the school is known for attracting well-connected foreigners, many of whom work for their home country’s embassy while enrolled.
Roen Agdeppa, a rising sophomore who represents the school in the AU student senate, said students are worried the school will now be linked to the ripped-from-a-spy-novel allegations about Butina.
“It taints our prestige as a university,” Agdeppa said.
Butina, now 29, pursued several advanced degrees in Russia before arriving in the United States, including master’s degrees in political science and education and a doctorate,, according to biographies she posted online.
During that time, she became a well-known personality in Russia as an advocate for loosening the country’s restrictive gun laws.
“She is a charismatic leader,” said Dmitry Gubanov, a website designer in Moscow and friend of Butina.
Starting in 2014, she began traveling to the United States to attend National Rifle Association meetings and other gatherings of conservative leaders, often acting as an aide to Russian central banker Alexander Torshin.
Along the way, Butina managed to have brief encounters with Republican presidential candidates, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump — part of a scheme to cultivate access to Republican leaders and promote the Kremlin’s views, prosecutors now allege.
Federal investigators found evidence that Butina and an American colleague discussed the risks of her traveling on a tourist visa and ways she could remain in the United States, according to court papers. The description of the American matches that of Republican political operative Paul Erickson, with whom Butina’s attorney has said she was romantically involved.
After allegedly consulting Erickson, Butina sought a student visa, and in August 2016 she arrived in Washington to begin her studies at American University.
Prosecutors claimed in court papers last week that her attendance at AU was Butina’s cover while she was continuing to work to promote Russian government interests.
But Robert N. Driscoll, Butina’s attorney, said that she was not a Russian agent and that her interest in the AU program was genuine.
He said she was eager to be closer to Erickson and was winding down her gun rights activities in Russia. She also believed that an American graduate degree would help her make a career change into business, perhaps with a focus on cryptocurrency, he said.
“What was left for her in Russia?” Driscoll said. “America was looking pretty good.”
The AU program also gave Butina the opportunity to be near powerful figures — and those aspiring to be.
One wall of the light-filled, soaring atrium of the School of International Service building on Nebraska Avenue NW is lined with large photos of the luminaries who have spoken on the campus of 13,000 students. They include Rice, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Jimmy Carter. Many who attend the program aspire to work in the Foreign Service or do consulting work for the federal government.
Butina enrolled in a master’s program in international affairs in the global governance, politics and security program. Required coursework included classes on intelligence analysis and organized crime, including one titled “Cyber Warfare, Terrorism, Espionage, and Crime.”
Gubanov, her friend from Russia, said she found the program difficult at first. “The language was different. The surroundings were all new,” he said, but he added that she came to enjoy it.
She moved into an apartment in McLean Gardens, a collection of brick condominium buildings not far from campus, and began to build a social life.
In November 2016, just three months after arriving, she hosted a “Stars and Tsars”-themed costume party at Cafe Deluxe, a restaurant in Cleveland Park, to celebrate her birthday
Erickson was there, dressed as the Russian mystic Rasputin, while Butina went as Empress Alexandra, the wife of the last emperor of Russia, as the Daily Beast first reported in February 2017.
One person who attended the party said there was a giant glass bottle shaped like a Kalashnikov rifle. Guests poured shots of vodka from the barrel of the glass gun.
A few months later, she took part in the celebrations of Trump’s inauguration, snapping a selfie in front of the Capitol during the swearing-in ceremony and then attending a ball with Erickson.
In the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, members of Russia’s elite anticipated a thaw between Moscow and Washington
With fellow students, Butina was coy about how she was paying for school. She told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she had received some income in 2016 from a $5,000-a-month consulting deal with the Outdoor Channel television network to provide advice on a planned program on hunting in Russia, according to a person familiar with her testimony.
The network’s chief executive, Jim Liberatore, accompanied an NRA delegation that was hosted by Butina and her gun rights group in Moscow in December 2015, photos of the trip show.
A spokesman for the Outdoor Channel did not directly address the payment but said Liberatore had visited Russia to develop interest in the channel’s conservation programming and streaming app.
Butina also got two student jobs, first as an assistant in the School for International Service’s undergraduate honors program and then as a research assistant in the Kogod School of Business, according to an AU spokesman and her LinkedIn profile.
At the international service school, she had a desk in a suite near an office for Rice, who joined AU as a professor after President Barack Obama left office, according to people familiar with the location.
Rice, who worked in the office only briefly, did not know Butina, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In February 2017, Butina and a group of other AU students from former Soviet-bloc countries traveled to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where they met with American students who were studying the collapse of the Soviet Union in a course taught by Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower recalled that Butina stood out among those in the group, most of whom were new undergraduates — she was better dressed, more practiced, more polished.
In a photo from the outing, Butina stands in an overcoat and high heels next to classmates in pants and sneakers.
“She was clearly older than the rest of the students and more confident,” said Eisenhower, an author and expert on U.S.-Russia relations who later realized she had once run into Butina at an event in Washington. “She seemed like a networker.”
Butina had a photo taken with Eisenhower and posted it to her own Facebook page.
In classes and at parties, Butina was a proud defender of Russia. At times she wore a Russian flag on her lapel, and she defended the country’s invasion and occupation of Crimea, said a person who studied with her.
In the fall of 2017, she jumped into a class discussion that touched on Russian cyberattacks, including reports of interference in the U.S. presidential campaign. A classmate said she brushed off the attacks, saying that other countries — including the United States — employed the same tactics.
“She was trying to justify it,” the classmate said.
Her pro-Russian views drew notice.
One of her former professors told the Daily Beast last year that Butina had claimed several times in class to be part of communications between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Butina complained about the Daily Beast report to university officials, telling them that she did not recall making such claims and that it was inappropriate for a professor to disclose what was said in classroom discussions, Driscoll said.
She defended herself further when The Washington Post reported in April 2017 on her ties to the NRA and Torshin, declining to be interviewed but sending long emails in perfect English.
“I have not been involved in American politics the past few years — other than to form friendships with a few American allies on gun rights,” she wrote in one email. “The politics of Russia have been challenging enough.”
She told The Post that her job as Torshin’s assistant was informal and unpaid and that she had not been asked by anyone in the Russian government to build ties with Americans.
Butina — who had posed a question to Trump at a 2015 town hall and briefly met his eldest son the following year — also said she had “never met or spoken to any member of either President Trump’s campaign, his presidential transition team or his administration.”
At school, classmates were chattering about her relationship with Erickson, who would accompany her to campus social events where he was decades older than others in the crowd.
One person recalled that Erickson joined Butina at an AU event to guide international students through the work visa process, peppering the immigration lawyer leading the seminar with questions on her behalf.
Prosecutors allege that Erickson would routinely help complete her academic assignments by editing papers and answering exam questions.
Driscoll disputed that, saying that Erickson helped her with grammar and English idioms but that otherwise Butina completed her own schoolwork, maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average.
“That really pissed her off,” Driscoll said. “She worked really hard. She spent a lot of weekends in the library. She went to all her classes. She’s proud of her accomplishments at the school.”
Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.
Classmates agreed that Butina put in long hours at the library working on assignments. She told fellow students that she hoped to get a job in cybersecurity but was worried her nationality could pose barriers.
As the school year ended this spring, she prepared to leave Washington and move in with Erickson at his home in South Dakota, according to Driscoll.
In May, Butina walked across the stage at the AU graduation in a blue gown, smiling slightly, her red hair tucked beneath her mortarboard.
Almost exactly two months later, she was arrested.
Alice Crites, Ellen Nakashima and Debbie Truong in Washington and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.