An 18-month sentence for Maria Butina, a Russian operative who used her NRA activism to illegally infiltrate conservative political circles, was an effort to "save face" for the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday.
Speaking with reporters after an international forum in Beijing, Putin said there was nothing to charge Butina with.
"It's not clear what she was sentenced for," the Russian president said. "What crime did she commit?
Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison by a federal judge Friday.
The 30-year-old American University graduate student pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the U.S. She was arrested in July.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan gave Butina credit for nine months of time served. The judge ordered her deported as soon as her time is up.
On Saturday, Putin said he agreed with his Foreign Ministry's assessment that Butina's sentence is "lawlessness."
"I think it's a case of 'saving face'," the Russian president said, adding: "In order to not make it look completely ridiculous, they gave her 18 months to show that she's guilty of something."
On Friday, Butina addressed the court and, her voice at times quivering, insisted she wasn't working as a spy, and that she only wanted to mend Russia-U.S. relations.
"I came here to better my life to get a degree. I wished to mend relations while building my resume," she said. "It was for these actions and my own ignorance that I’m here."
However, she admitted to harming relations between the two superpowers.
"It has never been my intention to harm American people, but I did so by not notifying your government. It has harmed my attempts to improve relations," she said. “I have three degrees, but now I’m a convicted felon with no money, no job and no freedom.”
“Instead of building peace, I created discord,” she said.
But Chutkan didn't buy Butina's tearful claims of innocent ignorance of the law, saying the Russian operative knew exactly what she was doing.
"She was doing this under the direction of a Russian official ... at a time that Russia was looking to interfere with the U.S. political process," the judge said. “This was no simple misunderstanding by an overeager foreign student."
Russian state media news service TASS reported that the Russian Foreign Ministry called the verdict an "ugly stain" on the U.S. justice system, adding that the court decision was "politically motivated."
The ministry had for months called Butina "a political prisoner" and started a hashtag #FreeMariaButina campaign in her support.
Her defense lawyers had asked Chutkan for no jail time, writing in a sentencing memo that Butina has "always been willing to cooperate with the government."
Prosecutors conceded that "Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense," but said she was still working to the detriment of the United States.