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Accused Russian spy spoke at USF St. Petersburg world affairs conference

Maria Butina, 29, who was accused by the U.S. Justice Department recently of being a Russian spy, was on two panels at the 2016 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.

While federal prosecutors believe Maria Butina was organizing a shadow campaign to influence American politics ahead of the 2016 election on behalf of Russia, she spoke at a conference at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on world affairs.

Butina, 29, tried to broker a private meeting between then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016, according to the New York Times. And she used a gun-rights organization, reported to be the National Rifle Association, and the National Prayer Breakfast as conduits through which she tried to soften American political views on Russia, federal court records show. She was arrested Sunday, accused of being a covert Russian agent.

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In the meantime, Butina attended the 2016 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, hosted at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg that February. The Tampa Bay Times was a sponsor of the conference.

There, she participated on two panels, one called "Gun Rights, Mental Health Rights/ Where Should Societies Draw the Line?" That panel explored how other countries balance gun control and gun rights, and sought to have both conservative and liberal viewpoints, according to conference organizers, via USFSP spokesman Matt Cimitile. She served on that panel with USF family studies Professor Mary Armstrong; Howard Simon, the retiring executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida; and documentary filmmaker Meg Moritz. It was moderated by USF history and politics Professor Raymond Arsenault.

Arsenault recalled that Butina was on the panel because she claimed to run a gun-rights organization in Russia, and was the only participant with a pro-gun stance. Organizers liked that she had a different take on the issue and could offer an international perspective, Arsenault said.

The group she's said to have founded is called Right to Bear Arms.

"I don't know to this day if it was real, or a paper cover for her infiltration into the NRA," the professor said.

Arsenault recalled that Butina didn't come off as "professional" during her participation on the panel.

"She was not a scholar," he said. "She was just, as you might imagine. She was pretty. And kind of coquettish. She smiled a lot."

Thomas Smith, a USFSP political science professor and conference co-organizer, thought Butina was insightful and captivating on the gun panel.

“She went through the litany of difficulties for legally obtaining a gun in Russia,” Smith said. “I thought she was actually a pretty engaging speaker.”

Butina also participated in a panel called "Russia: Imperial Aspirations on a Beer Budget." Other panelists were Ralph Clem, Florida International University professor emeritus of geography; USF history Professor Kees Boterbloem; and journalist and author Richard Miniter.

When Arsenault first heard of Butina's arrest, he said his first thought was, "Oh my God, that sounds exactly like the woman who was on my panel."

"And sure enough," he said, "it was she."