01:50 - Source: CNN
Russian indicted this month asked Trump question in 2015
CNN  — 

The list of allegations against Maria Butina reads like a plot from an international crime thriller.

An artist's rendering of Russian Maria Butina at a court hearing this week.

But this is real life, and the 29-year-old Russian is accused of acting as a foreign agent in the United States and allegedly using sex and deception to build her network of influential international connections.

But who is Butina and how did she get access to US politicians before she was charged this week as a Russian agent?

Hers is a complicated story with a tangled web of allegations spanning two continents, and it’s just getting started. But we’ll walk you through it.

She came to the US on a student visa

Butina came to the United States on a student visa known as the F-1 in August 2016, court records show. Sometimes, she uses the first name Mariia.

She was a graduate student at American University in Washington, where she lived, but prosecutors allege school was a “cover.” Before her arrival, she was a special assistant to a high-level unnamed Russian government official – who at one point worked for the Russian Central Bank, court documents say. While in the United States, she allegedly worked at the direction of this official.

She has a passion for guns

Butina’s purported love of guns did not start in the United States as seductive photos of her with weapons reveal.

As a founder of a Russian gun rights organization, she posed in stilettos and leather while brandishing guns for a Russian GQ magazine spread. When she moved to the United States, her background seemed to come in handy as she attended National Rifle Association events, allegedly in an attempt to strike up influential friendships, according to court filings.

Butina attends the NRA annual meeting in Nashville in 2015.

But prosecutors say she spent years trying to set up back-channel communications between Russia and the Republican Party through the NRA as well as between Russia and the Trump campaign. Her ultimate goal was to make American leadership more sympathetic to Russian interests, court filings show.

She’s been compared to another Russian spy

Her M.O. seemed to match that of another Russian, sleeper agent Anna Chapman.

The United States deported Chapman in a prisoner swap in 2010.

Anna Chapman was deported from the United States in a prisoner swap in 2010.

Butina appeared to operate like Chapman, prosecutors say, with people who knew her describing her as smart, aggressive and attractive, qualities that helped her expand her network of American contacts.

Russian politician Alexander Torshin praised Butina’s public image and success in infiltrating high-profile American groups, prosecutors revealed in a court hearing Wednesday in Washington.

“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin allegedly once wrote to her. When she texted him a photo of herself smiling in front of the US Capitol on President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, he allegedly wrote back: “Daredevil girl!”

She asked Trump a question on Russia during campaign

In 2015, Butina attended an event where she introduced herself as from Russia and asked then-candidate Trump what his foreign policy would be with Moscow if elected. She also asked whether Trump would maintain sanctions against Russia.

“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump responded. “Putin has no respect for President Obama. Big problem.”

She was suspected of being a flight risk

Butina was in a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, CNN has learned. The man she was involved with was under investigation over fraud allegations, prosecutors said in court this week. Erickson was not named in court, but details in court papers match activities of Paul Erickson, a political operative.

Her relationship with the 56-year-old American was “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” prosecutors said, adding that she secretly complained about their living situation. At one point she offered sex to another person “in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors said.

Last week, investigators suspected Butina was planning to move money outside the United States as her apartment lease in Washington was ending July 31 and she was packing boxes. Butina and Erickson were attempting to rent a moving truck and had made a wire transfer of about $3,500 to an account in Russia days earlier, prosecutors said.

She was arrested Sunday and pleaded not guilty to criminal charges Wednesday in federal court in Washington. Erickson has not responded to CNN requests for comment.

Butina is being held without bond after a judge agreed with prosecutors that she was a flight risk. If found guilty, she could face up to 15 years in prison.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, defense attorney Robert Driscoll told reporters Butina was “not an agent” of Russia and was innocent.

CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Sara Murray contributed to this report.