Updated at 10:53 a.m. ET
Maria Butina says this is all a big misunderstanding.
Was she part of the vast Russian government effort to influence politics within the United States?
"Absolutely not," she said.
The Russian woman who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to serve as a foreign agent inside the United States says she simply didn't know she was supposed to register.
As for being an intelligence operative, an agent provocateur or any of the other things of which she has been accused, Butina said those accusing her don't know her.
"It wouldn't be appropriate to say that this was all one grand giant plan and I'm a part of some grand giant plan," she said Thursday. "There is no proof of that. And I have no knowledge that there is a certain plan."
Butina spoke to NPR by phone in an exclusive interview from the detention center outside Washington, D.C., where she has been in custody since her arrest last summer.
She pointed out that she isn't mentioned in the redacted version of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller and said that she doesn't know anything about election interference beyond what she has seen in the press.
All she wanted, Butina said, was to be a "peace-builder" between Russia and the United States.
"I never hide my love to my motherland neither to this country ... I love both countries, and I was building peace."
The feds' perspective
The U.S. government has a different take on all this.
It says that Butina, even if she didn't set out to become one, wound up as a de facto intelligence asset, not only seeking to build clandestine connections between Russia's regime and influential Americans but also identifying potential subjects for follow-up by other spies.
Intelligence officers call it "spotting and assessing," and it can be nearly as important to espionage as actually stealing secret information — identifying who has it and who might be a good candidate for more attention from spies.
"Acquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities," Justice Department prosecutors wrote before Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
"Something as basic as the identification of people who have the ability to influence policy in a foreign power's favor is extremely attractive to those powers. This identification could form the basis of other forms of intelligence operations, or targeting, in the future."
In 2010, the FBI ejected a whole network of spies who had burrowed into American life seeking to identify suitable targets for recruitment. In that case, Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, was responsible for deploying and running the network.
Butina was asked specifically whether she was part of a spot-and-assess effort, and she said she was not: "It feels for me that this is ... possibly a speculation which has no evidence."
Butina acknowledged working with her now-sanctioned mentor, Russian politician Alexander Torshin, but she denied that he "controlled" her or that he had an intelligence role.
Yes, Butina did send notes home to Torshin about what she was doing, she said, but she didn't know where the information she provided wound up, or whether it was any value to Russian leaders.
Yes, Butina said, she sought meetings with U.S. officials, conservative political leaders and others, but some of them were so unimportant that she couldn't remember the details and generally, she said, her aim was to build bridges between the United States and Russia.
"I believe that we should have peace between the two countries," she said.
"It has been my goal all the way. ... I believe that the relationships and their strength ... depends on people, depends on what they call civil diplomacy. On people who have similar interests. Similar hobbies. Similar minds, like people who, let's say ... who are Christians who share the faith — or people who share love to guns. That's exactly the point that I was addressing. I was building unofficial communication of civil diplomacy."
Guns were an important source of common ground in Butina's work.
Butina's boyfriend, Paul Erickson, emailed leaders on Donald Trump's presidential campaign in the spring of 2016 offering to serve as a back channel between them and Moscow via the National Rifle Association — a bridge that ultimately did not lead anywhere.
The clandestine nature of that outreach, however, was apparent all along to Butina and her mentor and handler. At one point, Torshin sent her a message likening her to one of the "illegals" who had been kicked out years before — the woman who has become known as Anna Chapman.
And when Butina attended Trump's inauguration, Torshin sent her a message hailing her as a "daredevil girl."
In her interview on Thursday, Butina acknowledged a note that investigators have discovered making references to Russia's intelligence service, the FSB. She said the reason she and Erickson had it was to anticipate any questions upon her return to Russia.
What if her "peace building" had been successful and the FSB asked her about it, she said.
"This is kind of a question that you don't ... ignore," Butina said. "So how do you respond to this question?"
Erickson is facing federal investment fraud allegations in his home state of South Dakota but has not been charged with any crime related to Butina or their political projects. He has pleaded not guilty in the South Dakota case, and his attorneys say he has done nothing wrong.
Meanwhile, Russia's government has been supporting Butina since her arrest.
Consular officials visited her in jail — which she said came as a surprise — and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs turned her into a cause célèbre in its official channels.
Russian officials have also taken an American, Paul Whelan, into custody and have accused him of spying in a case that drew speculation that it might be a tit-for-tat response to Butina's arrest.
Discussion for a time centered on the idea that the Russian government might want to have an American to exchange for Butina when the time comes for her to be released and return home, although it still isn't clear whether an exchange may happen.
Butina's new home
Butina is on the verge of moving from her cell outside Washington, D.C., to a federal prison, where she will serve roughly nine more months, and then is expected to be deported.
The time in custody doesn't bother her as much as the stir caused by her story, she said.
"I am embarrassed that instead of creating peace, by not registering I created discord — that is what I'm going to carry for the whole my life," Butina said. "This is what makes me most upset, not the 18 months that I got, though it's painful for my family."
When Butina returns to Russia, she said, she'll go back to Siberia, where she grew up, and try to become a professor, although it isn't clear now what will happen when she arrives.
"I will probably need a sabbatical," she said, because the past few years "have been a pretty colorful emotional experience."
NPR's Jessica Deahl and Sam Gringlas produced this interview for broadcast. NPR's Jolie Myers edited it for broadcast. NPR national security editor Philip Ewing contributed to this digital story.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Her photograph has been everywhere - long, red hair. Often she cradles a gun, and she's often accompanied by headlines posing this question. Is she a Russian spy?
(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Is Maria Butina a Russian national?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Maria Butina is currently in jail in Washington, D.C.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Accused Maria Butina of being a Russian spy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...A Kremlin agent.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The red-haired Russian is accused...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: ...Gun-loving graduate student...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Maria Butina...
SHAPIRO: Maria Butina is so far the only Russian to go to prison in connection with her country's efforts to interfere in American politics.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Her case has been so widely covered it's sometimes seemed the only person not weighing in was Butina herself. Her voice has been almost entirely absent since her arrest this past July until now. She's given her first U.S. interview since she was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. She gave that interview to our colleague Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: We gave Maria Butina a time - 2 p.m. - and our number. And then we sat by the phone in the studio and waited.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Hello. This is a prepaid collect call from...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: ...An inmate at...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: ...Alexandria Detention Center.
KELLY: Now, I had driven out to Alexandria Detention Center in the D.C. suburbs weeks ago to try to convince her to give us an interview. In person, Butina looked thinner than in photographs - no makeup, no jewelry, wearing glasses and green prison scrubs, that famous red hair hanging to her waist. I wanted to hear her story - why she came to America, how she built a network of influential Americans inside the National Rifle Association and other conservative circles and then reported her activities back to Moscow, why she didn't register as a foreign agent as required by law. Weeks passed. Finally she agreed to talk on the record. Under prison rules, we couldn't tape in person, hence the call.
Does a warden have to help you place the call? How does it work?
MARIA BUTINA: No, I just - happily, you guys in the United States have your First Amendment right, meaning I can use the phone as well as everybody else. Though I prefer mostly to keep silence for right now because I'm still in the middle of a storm.
KELLY: I want to ask just a few very direct yes or no questions. Are you a Russian spy?
KELLY: Were you reporting to anyone in the Russian government during your time here?
BUTINA: I was reporting to a Russian official, and his name is Alexander Torshin.
KELLY: Alexander Torshin - at the time, he was deputy governor of Russia's central bank, well-connected in Kremlin circles and, according to U.S. prosecutors, Butina's handler here in the U.S. So was he telling her where to go, who to meet? Was Torshin or anyone else in the Russian government paying her?
BUTINA: Absolutely not. Everything that I've done - I've never officially worked for anyone, and I viewed - I have always viewed our relationships as a granddaughter and a grandfather. My title as a special assistant has appeared because I've been travelling with Mr. Torshin, helping him to translate because he speaks no English at all. And so at one occasion, one of the hosts said, well, you, Ms. Butina, would like to have one room with a king-sized bed with Mr. Torshin or two separate rooms? This question did offend me a lot because I deserve to be treated as a strong and smart, intelligent woman, not as a prostitute. So I called Mr. Torshin and said, look; could you please make business cards for me so they won't view me as your escort agent? And he said...
KELLY: So that it would appear to be a professional relationship...
KELLY: ...And you had business cards that you could show.
BUTINA: Yes. It is an issue.
KELLY: Were you aware at the time that Alexander Torshin was passing on the information you were giving him to the Russian government, to the Foreign Ministry?
BUTINA: Only on one occasion. In fact, if we look at the situation, he just said, if I don't mind if he shares one of my notes with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And there I said that I would be honored because, well, I am a young woman, and there - if people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would consider my analysis as valuable, it was very pleasant for me. So of course - I said of course yes. I don't know, as a matter of fact, what reaction was on my note. And I don't even remember if he passed that note.
KELLY: What is your relationship with Mr. Torshin now?
BUTINA: We haven't been in touch, and I don't know what was the reason of him remaining silent and keeping his distance from me. And I'm sure it's not a malicious intent, and I think he's a very noble man.
KELLY: He has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. NPR has gotten hold of some of the evidence laying out why he was sanctioned, and it notes his links to a leader of organized crime. It suggests that he was providing advice on how to launder money. What do you know of of Mr. Torshin's alleged links to organized crime, to money laundering, to any of that?
BUTINA: Well, I don't believe it's true, but I have no knowledge about this, absolutely none. One time I asked him about it, and he denied it. I never lied, and if I don't know, I tell you I don't know.
KELLY: The one count that you pleaded guilty to was conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. Were you part of a wider Kremlin effort to influence U.S. politics?
BUTINA: Absolutely not. I don't know anything that was going on with the elections rather than the media reports.
KELLY: But you were here in the U.S. living here in 2016, in 2017, in 2018 as every front page is filled with news about the Russia probe and Russia investigations and Russian efforts to try to influence U.S. politics. What was going through your mind as you read this?
BUTINA: It has been very painful for me because I've never hide my love to my motherland, neither to this country where I got graciously approved to get the visa and got great education. I love both countries, and I was building peace. So any additional discord for me is painful. This is - the worst pain of my situation now - and I've mentioned this in the court - was that I am embarrassed that instead of creating peace by not registering, I created discord. That is what I'm going to carry for the whole my life. This is what makes me most upset, not the 18 months that I got.
KELLY: Help me help other Americans listening to understand because as part of your guilty plea, you admitted to carrying out a secret political and influence campaign. You admitted to being part of an organized effort which was backed by Russian officials to open unofficial lines of communication with Americans, with current officials here in Washington. And yet you're saying you were not in any way part of a broader Russian effort to influence U.S. politics.
BUTINA: We are talking about officials who would attend the National Prayer Breakfast. We would be talking about similar-minded people of the National Rifle Association that happen to be sometimes politicians as well. Is that significant? Oh, yeah, absolutely. In order to meet with them - I didn't know, but I should have registered. And I failed to do so, and I completely accept my responsibilities for doing that. But nowhere it has been said that I did any covert or illegal activities. That wouldn't be appropriate to say that this is all one grand, giant plan and I'm a part of some grand, giant plan. There is no proof of that.
KELLY: As you know, the U.S. government, the FBI, U.S. prosecutors have seen your activities through a very different lens, and I want you to have the opportunity to respond to some of the claims that have been made against you starting with U.S. prosecutors who say your actions threatened American national security, that you were part of a spot-and-assess operation, that you were helping identify Americans who might be susceptible to recruitment by Russian intelligence. These are claims that U.S. prosecutors made in court. Are they true?
BUTINA: No. Plus I think we're missing one word - potentially harming. So for right now, from the evidence that we have, it could be seen that, yes, I did meet certain people. Not all of them but some of them are known to Mr. Torshin. We know he did some reporting or some notes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We don't know if it ever went to any intelligence services, and we don't know if it's significant for this intelligence services. It feels for me that this is, like, all a potentially, possibly speculation which has no evidence. So I do question the U.S. justice system, and I think you guys should, too.
KELLY: You must know, though, as you were networking and getting access to people here and feeding that information back to Russia that it would be used to advance Russia's interests.
BUTINA: There are a lot of things that could have been used for advance Russian interests, including peace building. And I think it's actually also helping to America as well.
KELLY: Although it's been documented that the information you provided made its way to Russia's Foreign Ministry, the Russian equivalent of the State Department. And I noticed, you know, if you look at Twitter today, the Foreign Ministry of Russia has you as its profile picture with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina.
BUTINA: It was the biggest surprise for me, you know? I was the person who fought for gun rights, and gun rights are not the most popular topic - let me put it this way - in their presidential - Russian presidential administration. And so my biggest surprise was when two days after my arrest I saw Russian embassy - two consuls. And I look at them and said, like, what are you guys doing here? I didn't expect my country to defend me at all because I am not a pro-governmental person at all. And their support for me has been a big surprise.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #4: Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.
KELLY: That's right. The prison phone cuts you off after a certain number of minutes. But I had more questions, so we waited and hoped she would call back - the second part of my interview with convicted Russian agent Maria Butina in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.