Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in a phone call Saturday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said U.S. charges against a Russian woman as a Moscow government agent were “fabricated” and demanded her immediate release.
Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian citizen, was arrested last weekend and charged with infiltrating American political organizations, including the National Rifle Association.
Lavrov discussed the issue by phone with Pompeo in a follow-up conversation to the summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a statement by the Russian foreign ministry on its Facebook page.
In the phone call, Lavrov stressed “the unacceptability of the actions of the U.S. authorities, who have arrested Russian citizen Maria Butina in the United States on the basis of fabricated charges, and the need for her early release,” according to Interfax.
Prosecutors say Butina engaged in a years-long campaign as a covert agent for the Kremlin in an attempt to “advance the interests of her home country.”
“The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination and preparation,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “The plan for Butina also required, and she demonstrated, a willingness to use deceit in a visa application to move to the United States and bring the plan to fruition.”
Butina pleaded not guilty.
The two men also discussed Syria as well as efforts to promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Russia has been steadily beating the drum on Butina’s behalf. On Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry announced a #FreeMariaButina campaign. A tweet by the foreign ministry called on supporters to add a photo of Butina to their Twitter avatars.
Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., told a conference in Moscow on Friday that the allegations are groundless and that American authorities tried to “break her” and refused her consular visits for the first few days after her arrest, the Associated Press reported.
In jailing Butina pending her trial, Magistrate Deborah Robinson sided with federal prosecutors who argued that the Russian represented an “extreme” risk of flight from the country. Federal agents said that at the time of Butina’s arrest last weekend, her apartment was packed with boxes “consistent with a move.” Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, said the packing boxes were in preparation for a move to South Dakota – not back to Russia – where Driscoll said she intended to live with her boyfriend.
The charges are not related to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, the case was announced by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, where federal investigators asserted Butina has been operating as a covert Russian agent since her arrival in August 2016.
The timing of the charging announcement, however, comes on the same day that a summit in Helsinki between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin put a spotlight on accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. After meeting with Putin, Trump accepted Putin’s denials that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election. The president’s comments prompted lawmaker outrage and the release of a rare statement from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats underscoring Russia’s role.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson in Washington, Ashley May in McLean, Va.
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