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Meet Maria Butina, the FBI’s Russian gun nut undeclared foreign agent

Meduza
Maria Butina in 2013
Maria Butina in 2013
Maria Butina’s Facebook page

On July 16, the U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of a 29-year-old Russian woman named Maria Butina. She is accused of conspiracy against the United States and promoting Russian state interests as an unregistered “foreign agent.” The founder of the social organization “Right to Bear Arms,” Butina is considered closed to Alexander Torshin, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank and a former senator in Russia’s Federation Council. According to U.S. officials, Torshin allegedly oversaw Butina’s actions in the United States. Meduza reviews what we know about this woman and the charges against her.

Butina's life in Russia

The 29-year-old Barnaul native is best known in her homeland for creating the advocacy group “Right to Bear Arms,” which lobbies for expanded handgun ownership rights in Russia. In 2014, the magazine GQ said in an article that Butina “loved as a child to watch her father take apart and clean his rifle.” She apparently picked up her first firearm when she was just 10.

In 2010, Butina graduated from the Communications, Philology, and Political Science Department at Altai State University and promptly enrolled in their graduate school. While still a student, she became a member of the Altai Territory’s Civic Chamber. At 21, she launched a chain of furniture stores, and a year later — at the age of 22 — she founded “Right to Bear Arms” and moved to Moscow. Once in the capital, she sold almost all her stores and opened an advertising agency, which became her main source of income, according to GQ.

By 2014, “Right to Bear Arms” had reportedly “spread across the country, swallowing up all similar endeavors, and recruiting into its ranks everyone from the nomenclatura of major political parties to nationalists and liberals.” The organization started collaborating with the National Rifle Association in the U.S., and even took up “human rights and lobbying activities.” For example, Butina’s group promoted an initiative called “My Home Is My Fortress,” advocating a broader legal definition of self-defense. This project was one of the first to attract more than 100,000 signatures on the Russian government’s “Public Initiative” online portal, and it even won an expert review board’s support, but the Interior and Justice ministries vetoed the idea.

According to American journalists, it was around this time when Butina got acquainted with Paul Erickson, a conservative political operative and active NRA member. In 2013, “Right to Bear Arms” published a video address from John Bolton, the former U.S. representative to the UN (who today serves as national security adviser to President Trump). In the video, Bolton expresses his support for Russians’ gun ownership rights.

John Bolton address gun rights advocates on the anniversary of Russia's constitution.
Right to Bear Arms

Journalists reported that the “patron” of Butina’s “Right to Bear Arms” lobby was allegedly Alexander Torshin, who at the time served as a senator in the Russian Federation Council, and more recently accepted a role as deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank. Torshin regularly advocated broader gun ownership rights for Russians, and repeatedly endorsed initiatives by “Right to Bear Arms.” The group’s honorary members include the firebrand lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the controversial filmmaker Ivan Okhlobystin, and former State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev.

In 2014, Maria Butina participated in the Civic Chamber’s electronic elections. Anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, whom many in the West know as the leader of the anti-Putin opposition, endorsed her candidacy, saying, “Butina lobbies for the civilian right to bear arms and is almost the only person leading a normal election campaign.” Butina failed to win a seat in the chamber. Sources who worked with Butina told Meduza that she has “oppositionist views” and “took part in the Bolotnaya protests,” but being a “fan of the gun idea in Russia” she was read to work “with both the opposition and the party of power.”

In January 2015, Butina resigned as the chairperson of “Right to Bear Arms,” and the organization was liquidated in March 2018 by court order for violating Russia’s laws on public associations. Today, the group’s website is shut down, but it remains active on Vkontakte, where it has 40,000 subscribers. On July 16, responding to news of Butina’s arrest in the United States, “Right to Bear Arms” tweeted, “We believe that these charges are baseless and politically motivated.”

A source close to Torshin told Meduza that Butina was a “good staffer who could get the job done,” calling her a “tenacious” and “can-do” young woman who would “go all out, if necessary.” “If she managed to find a spot on Mr. Torshin’s team, it means he considers her useful,” the source said. “She wanted to do a lot regarding guns. She’s young, and she's got fire in her belly.”

Butina's life in the U.S.

In 2015, Butina enrolled in a Master’s Degree program at American University in Washington, D.C., studying international relations. Afterwards, she started spending a lot of her time in the United States, attending multiple events hosted by the NRA. According to documents released by the Justice Department, an unnamed American citizen helped introduce her to several prominent U.S. politicians. The Washington Post and other news outlets say this person was likely Paul Erickson.

Butina’s “patron,” Alexander Torshin, maintained close ties to the NRA and several Republicans before Butina moved to the United States. According to Mother Jones, Torshin attended NRA events and invited its leaders to Moscow, where he introduced them to Butina’s “Right to Bear Arms” movement.

After enrolling at American University, Butina started traveling across the U.S. with Torshin. In 2015 and 2016, during the last presidential election, she attended multiple NRA conferences and other events where she met prominent members of the Republican Party, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who was then running for president.

On June 12, 2015, just a few days before Donald Trump formally announced his candidacy, The National Interest published an article by Butina, titled “The Bear and the Elephant,” where she quoted Marquise de Pompadour and argued that a Republican victory in the next U.S. presidential election was essential for improving U.S.-Russian relations. (Five days later, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti ran a whole article summarizing Butina’s text.)

A month later, Butina showed up at a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas, where she managed to ask the future U.S. president if he planned to keep sanctions on Russia, if he won the race. Trump said, “I don’t think you need the sanctions,” after complaining that previous administrations had driven Russia to closer ties with China.

Donald Trump handles questions at FreedomFest July 11,'15 Las Vegas
DemoCast

The Daily Beast reported that Butina threw a costume party in Washington, D.C., to celebrate her birthday in November 2016 (shortly after Trump’s election victory), and several members of the Trump campaign apparently attended, including Paul Erickson, who came as Rasputin. Completing the gag, Butina dressed up as Empress Alexandra, Nicholas II’s wife — the same woman over whom Rasputin wielded great influence.

At the party, according to two sources, Butina claimed to have helped put representatives of the Trump campaign in contact with Russia. Svetlana Savranskaya, Butina’s former instructor at American University, told The Daily Beast that Butina also repeated this claim several times in her class.

In March 2017, Torshin and Butina attended a dinner with Republican figures (including two congressmen). The dinner was part of the festivities surrounding the National Prayer Breakfast. A few months later, there were reports that Torshin was also supposed to have met with Donald Trump during this visit to the U.S., though the Russian official later denied this. Speaking “as a representative for the Russian delegation,” Butina told the news agency TASS that there were never plans for Torshin’s delegation to meet with White House officials, adding that the group wasn’t authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Russian Federation.

In March 2017, Time magazine said Butina and Torshin were part of a “years-long campaign to build connections between Russia's leaders and American conservatives.” “The crusade, which predates the rise of Trump, has garnered scant attention but achieved significant success, sparking new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers, and powerful interest groups like the NRA,” Time reported.

In recent years, as American journalists have thrown any and all connections between Donald Trump and Russia under a microscope, there has been a good deal of reporting about Maria Butina. In December 2017, The New York Times mentioned her in a story about Paul Erikson’s efforts to put the Trump campaign in contact with the Kremlin. (In May 2016, Erikson wrote an email to Trump campaign adviser Rick Dearborn — subject line “Kremlin Connection” — claiming that he’d been put in position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.”) In January 2018, McClatchy named Butina in an article about an alleged FBI investigation into Torshin’s possible role in illegally funnelling some of the $30 million the NRA spent to support the Trump campaign in 2016. Similar stories mentioning Butina appeared in Time, The Daily Beast, Mother Jones, and other news outlets.

In May 2018, Butina graduated from American University.

The charges against Butina

In an indictment published by the U.S. Justice Department on July 16, the FBI identified Maria Butina as the aide of an unnamed Russian official who previously served as a senator and now holds a high-ranking position in Russia’s Central Bank — obviously referring to Alexander Torshin. U.S. investigators believe Butina conspired with this Russian official to promote Russia’s strategic interests in Washington, as an undeclared foreign agent. She allegedly acted on his instructions from 2015 until February 2017. Following the news about Butina’s arrest, several media outlets in Russia and the West have continued to report incorrectly that she is charged with espionage.

The Justice Department’s indictment mentions “Russian Official” (likely Torshin), “U.S. Person 1” (probably Paul Erickson), and “U.S. Person 2.”

In March 2015, Butina emailed a “project proposal” to “U.S. Person 1” (Erickson), where she predicted correctly that the Republican Party would “obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 elections,” presenting an opportunity to “build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” with Russia, despite the party’s traditionally “negative and aggressive foreign policy.” Butina said this unique moment was possible thanks in part to the NRA’s “central place and influence” in the Republican Party. In the same email, she also highlighted the close ties she and Torshin had built with the NRA, as well as instances when she had been introduced to Republican leaders as “a representative of [Russia’s] informal diplomacy.” She concluded by asking “U.S. Person 1” for $125,000 to participate in Republican Party events scheduled ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

In response, “U.S. Person 1” sent Butina a list of “potential American contacts,” telling her that she had to “balance two opposing imperatives”: convincing people in the U.S. that she speaks for post-Putin Russian interests, “while simultaneously doing nothing to criticize the president or speed the arrival of his successor.” Her American contact also warned that appearing the U.S. media would “only be possible” if she agreed to “be more candid (honest) than is politically prudent” for her. The contact advised off-the-record meetings with media personalities, admitting that Butina’s “patrons / sponsors may not fully understand the power of such meetings if you do not appear on television, radio, or print as you do in Russia.” The contact concluded with advice that the people on his list wanted to know more about U.S-Russian relations after both Obama and Putin. “YOU can provide commentary on both — if you’re willing to take that risk,” the contact told Butina.

The Justice Department’s indictment also includes excerpts from Butina’s email correspondence with “Russian Official” (Torshin) and two “U.S. persons,” as well as Twitter direct messages with Torshin (who’s one of the most avid Twitter users in all Russian officialdom). According to the data gathered by the FBI, Butina and Torshin discussed different events attended by Americans that took place in Russia and the United States. In one message, Torshin apparently advised Butina to have “patience and cold blood” and “faith in yourself.”

In emails with Americans, Butina discussed her efforts to arrange “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington, D.C., and New York City in late May 2016, as well as her participation in the National Prayer Breakfast. In March 2016, Butina told “U.S. Person 2” that Torshin confirmed to her “his desire in our Russian-American project,” and that a Kremlin official had expressed approval “for building this communication channel.” Butina told her contact that he shouldn’t worry, because “all that we needed is ‘yes’ from Putin’s side. The rest is easier,” adding that Torshin was “very much impressed by you” and that “the Russians will support the efforts from our side.”

In September 2016, Butina emailed her two American contacts again, trying to organize another “friendship and dialogue” dinner in Washington, D.C., saying, “I am seriously worry that the candidates some upcoming day will suddenly realize that ‘now’ is the time to do something with Russia and will look for advisory among currently popular radically oppositional to Russia crowd of experts. Bad things happen than. I believe we can prevent it [sic].” A month later, “U.S. Person 1” emailed an acquaintance and claimed to have secured “a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican Party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”

In October 2016, Butina and Torshin discussed whether she should volunteer to serve as an election monitor, but Torshin said “the risk of provocation is too high and the ‘media hype’ which comes after it.” Butina apparently agreed, writing back, “Only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.” In November, after Trump’s victory, Torshin asked Butina to “think about which areas of life we could go towards bringing us closer,” citing ISIS. They also discussed who might be nominated to serve as the next secretary of state, as well as Russia’s potential response.

The last records contained in the Justice Department’s indictment address the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. On November 30, Butina emailed “U.S. Person 1,” claiming that the guests whom she and Torshin had “handpicked” were “VERY influential in Russia.” “They are coming to establish a back channel of communication,” she wrote, asking if “U.S. Person 2” might want to meet with them. (In addition to Torshin and Butina, political analyst Andrey Kolyadin and Yakutsk head Aisen Nikolaev also attended the breakfast.)

According to The Washington Post, the FBI started investigating Maria Butina before special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to review Russian election interference. The Butina case is reportedly being handled by federal agents and prosecutors “outside” Mueller’s office. The FBI reportedly decided to arrest her because it received information that she was planning to leave Washington.

On July 17, 2018, a federal grand jury formally approved the criminal indictment of Butina on two charges: conspiracy against the United States and promoting Russian state interests as an unregistered “foreign agent.” She faces a fine and up to 15 years in prison, if convicted of both charges.

Reactions to Butina’s arrest

Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, denies that his client is a Russian agent, arguing that the indictment against Butina “in actuality [...] describes a conspiracy to have a ‘friendship dinner’ [...] with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries.” “She has been publicly, essentially, in the media, accused of being an agent for the government of Russia,” Driscoll told a federal judge on Monday. “She testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in closed session, which was not public until today, several months ago, did not flee, cooperated with that request; had her house searched in April by the FBI with 15 agents going through everything she had; [and she] did not flee.” He says his client also offered to give evidence in Robert Mueller’s investigation, but the special counsel “expressed no interest.”

After the initial reports about Butina’s arrest, Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev said, “Something like this was to be expected, unfortunately. The anti-Russian machine is resisting anyway it can. And yes this might be the reaction of the out-of-control American hawk machine to the results of the [Putin-Trump] summit.”

Responding to (inaccurate) reports that his daughter is accused of espionage, Valery Butin said, “I’m certain that she has never and is not currently engaged in anything like that, and I’m absolutely 100-percent sure of this. This is psychotic. It’s a witch hunt.”

Alexander Torshin has not commented on the arrest of his protégé. He did not answer Meduza’s telephone calls.

Story by Viktor Davydov, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Taisiya Bekbulatova, Denis Dmitriev, and Ilya Zhegulev contributed to this report