WASHINGTON -- The protest, held in September 2016 across the street from the Russian Embassy in the U.S. capital, featured a handful of activists intending to show their opposition to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and upcoming parliamentary elections.
Holding Russian- and English-language signs -- "Honk for Russia without Putin" -- the group had been out for about an hour when a red-headed woman approached them and began asking friendly questions.
"She came to us, asked who we were, where we were from," one of the organizers, Dmitry Valuev, says of the September 2016 incident. She "offered to become friends on Facebook, asked where Russian-speakers hang out in D.C. We took a group photo with our signs, and then she decided to stand with us. Then she left."
Her name was Maria Butina, and she spent about 30 minutes chatting with the group. Later, Valuev tells RFE/RL, he looked at her Facebook invitation and noticed she was close to Aleksandr Torshin, a Russian lawmaker who has been linked by Spanish investigators to a powerful Russian organized crime group.
"I thought it was outrageous that Putin's agents openly act in D.C. and don't even try to hide it," he told RFE/RL.
Fast-forward 18 months, and the question whether the now 29-year-old Butina was, in fact, a Kremlin agent has deepened considerably, as a federal grand jury has charged her with acting as an unregistered agent for Russia.*
(Butina was charged under a law that requires people deemed to be working for a foreign government to register with the Justice Department. The law is similar to another law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is broader in its definitions. President Donald Trump's former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, is among notable people to have been charged with violating it in recent months.)
In her arraignment on July 18 in a U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C., Butina's defense lawyer, Robert Driscoll, entered a not-guilty plea for Butina and said she should be released pending trial.
But U.S. prosecutors argued she might flee the country, possibly with the help of Russian diplomats, and the judge ordered her held without bail pending trial.
Driscoll denied both that his client, who appeared in court wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, was a Russian agent or a flight risk. Russian officials have reacted angrily to Butina's July 15 arrest, accusing U.S. officials of trying to undermine the Helsinki summit between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
"U.S. special agents are hunting Russian citizens not only in the U.S. but in other countries, too. We are making all efforts to meet with Butina," Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters on July 18.
New documents filed by prosecutors on July 18, three days after she was first detained, allege that Butina had extensive communications with Russian intelligence agencies. They also suggested that there was a wider Russian intelligence network in the United States than previously known.
Butina, who reportedly hails from the Siberian city of Barnaul and used to own a furniture store, made a name for herself in Russia in 2012 as she sought to build a Russian equivalent of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the U.S. gun-rights organization renowned for its formidable lobbying and influence in U.S. politics.
During a Moscow rally in December 2012, Butina told RFE/RL that her efforts were partly in response to mass shootings in the United States. "What is the right to life, ingrained in our constitution, if you don't have the right to bear arms? If a person wishes to defend himself, he has no means for protection," she said.
That caught the attention of American gun-rights activists, and over the next four years she began traveling regularly on tourist visas to the United States, striking up friendships with NRA leaders.
According to court papers, she escorted Torshin, who has been described as her mentor, to several NRA events over several years beginning in 2014. She also documented many of those meetings with ample postings to Facebook and other social-media accounts. Torshin later became a life member of the organization.
In June 2015, she published an opinion piece in the National Interest, a conservative magazine, in which she argued that only a Republican president could improve the then-deteriorating state of relations between Moscow and Washington.
In August 2016, one month before she encountered Valuev and the other protesters outside the Russian Embassy, Butina received a student visa to study international relations at American University in Washington, D.C. That gave her greater flexibility to stay in the United States for a longer period.
By the time of her arrival in Washington, prosecutors allege, she had struck up a personal relationship with an American political operative and also offered sex to another unidentified person in exchange for a position with a special-interest organization.
The first individual is described in court papers as U.S. Person 1; The Washington Post has reported that the description matches that of Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican consultant and sometime lobbyist.
On January 20, 2017, Butina attended ceremonies surrounding Trump's inauguration as president, and she sent to the unnamed Russian official a photo of herself near the U.S. Capitol building.
According to court papers, the Russian official responded: "You're a daredevil girl! What can I say?" Butina replied, "Good teachers!"
Social-media posts introduced in court also showed Butina attending over several years the National Prayer Breakfast, a popular event in Washington for both conservative and many liberal politicians.
In February 2017, she succeeded in leading a group of 12 Russians, including Torshin, to the National Prayer Breakfast. Afterward, according to The Washington Post, Erickson sought to arrange a meeting between Torshin and Trump, who by then was president.
According to court papers, the following month, after some U.S. news media began reporting on Butina's activities, the unnamed Russian official wrote to her: "Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones."
By the summer of 2017, Butina was under surveillance by the FBI, U.S. attorney Erik Kenerson told the Washington federal court during the July 18 arraignment.
By the fall, she came under the scrutiny of not only law enforcement but also congressional committees. In November, investigators from the Senate Finance Committee contacted Butina, asking for documents related to Torshin.
Four months later, the Federal Election Commission -- the U.S. government agency tasked with overseeing federal election laws -- asked her about "suspicious" campaign contributions. And in April, according to U.S. prosecutors and her defense lawyer, Butina met with investigators from the Senate Intelligence Committee, giving eight hours of testimony and providing thousands of pages of communications.
That same month, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed major financial sanctions on Torshin and 23 other Russian government officials and business leaders, in response to their associations with Putin and their roles in "advancing Russia's malign activities."
Also in April, armed FBI agents raided Butina's Washington apartment, seizing computer equipment, documents, and other materials. On July 14, FBI agents followed Butina and U.S. Person 1 to a rental-truck facility, where they also purchased moving boxes.
Butina was arrested by the FBI the following day as U.S. law enforcement sought to keep her from leaving Washington. In their documents detailing the final days before Butina's arrest, prosecutors signaled that more charges could be filed, in particular against U.S. Person 1.
"Even if Butina were only trying to leave the immediate Washington, D.C., area, her sole real tie to the United States at all is U.S. Person 1, who, as the affidavit in support of the complaint demonstrates, was instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation, despite knowing its connections to the Russian Official," the court papers said.
U.S. prosecutors also alleged that Butina's personal relationship with U.S. Person 1 was purely a functional part of her covert efforts.
"This relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization," according to court papers.
American University officials have declined to comment on Butina's tenure, other than to state she graduated in May 2018.
A year earlier, in April 2017, Butina joined her university classmates on a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the biggest battle of the U.S. Civil War. There, the students met other international students for a weekend of seminars "to discuss misperceptions, conflicting interpretations of history, and ways to surmount them."
In a news story published on the university's website, Butina was quoted as saying the trip was like a "time machine that took us through the present."
"We had a great time learning about each other -- students from all of these countries...that represented different generations and cultures. It helped us to focus on similarities that unite us more than on the differences that divide us," she was quoted as saying.