The federal indictment of Maria Butina, the 29-year-old gun rights activist charged with being a Russian agent, has attracted plenty of media attention this week — but mostly for the wrong reasons.
Many stories about her case have been filled with salacious allegations about her sex life and have been rife with superficial comparisons to the television show “The Americans.” What has been missing in the media narrative is the indictment’s ominous significance. The Butina case is almost certainly the opening move in a brand new front in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Butina is just a minor figure in what appears to be a broader ongoing inquiry into the relationships between Russia, conservative American organizations like the National Rifle Association, and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. For months, federal investigators have been looking into whether the NRA or other conservative organizations were used by the Russian government or Russian oligarchs to funnel money to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
Investigators working with special counsel Robert Mueller have repeatedly questioned Russian oligarchs traveling to the United States about whether they made cash donations directly or indirectly to Trump’s campaign or his inauguration, CNN reported earlier this year. In at least one case, they stopped a Russian oligarch when his private plane landed in New York.
Butina has attracted the attention of federal investigators mainly because of her connections to this shadowy intersection of powerful Russians and right-wing Americans. In fact, it was Butina’s work for Alexander Torshin, a close political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, that made her a target of federal investigators. Torshin — not Butina — is the Russian figure whose involvement with the NRA and American conservatives brings the Trump-Russia case closer to Russian organized crime and Putin.
Torshin, now a top official at the Russian central bank and a former Russian senator, has been identified by Spanish authorities as the “godfather” of Taganskaya, a Russian organized crime group. Spanish police sought to arrest Torshin in 2013 for a scheme to launder money through the purchase of hotels in Mallorca.
But the police plan to catch him at a party for Alexander Romanov, another Russian organized crime figure, fell through when Torshin was apparently warned by Russian authorities not to travel to Spain, El País, a Spanish newspaper, reported. (In 2016, Romanov pleaded guilty to money laundering in a Spanish case. Torshin told El País that he knew Romanov in the 1990s, but that he “never intended to visit” him.)
Shockingly, Torshin was able to travel to the United States and develop close and long-standing relationships with prominent figures in the American conservative movement for years after Spain’s failed attempt to catch and arrest him.
Spanish officials have reportedly now provided information to the FBI about Torshin, and earlier this year the Treasury Department levied sanctions against him. In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI was investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA in order to help Trump’s campaign in 2016. But even given this recent flurry of activity, it is clear that American law enforcement officials were very late to picking up on what the Spanish knew about him.
While the Spanish were trying to put him behind bars, Torshin was making himself at home in the United States, where he grew close to the leadership of the NRA. His romance with the gun rights movement led him to write a strange op-ed in 2014 in the right-wing Washington Times, mourning the death of his “friend and colleague” Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian inventor of the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, while also mentioning that he “had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston” the previous year. (David Keene, who was president of the NRA from 2011 to 2013, was named the opinion editor of the Washington Times in July 2013 and currently serves as the paper’s editor at large.)
Butina, who has been pursuing a master’s degree at American University in Washington, previously worked for Torshin as his special assistant at the Russian Central Bank. Prosecutors now allege that while Butina was working as a Russian agent in the United States from 2015 until at least early last year, she was being directed by a Russian official. The court documents do not name the official, but appear to describe Torshin.
Under Torshin’s direction, Butina worked assiduously to develop relationships with leading American conservative organizations and political figures. Like Torshin, Butina made the NRA the focus of many of her efforts. Both Butina and Torshin became NRA life members.
Butina gained a reputation in American conservative circles as a young spokesperson for gun rights in Russia – a country where citizens have few gun rights. She formed a group called Right to Bear Arms in Russia, which promoted a video of John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, advocating for Russian gun rights.
One key question in the Butina case is whether the Right to Bear Arms in Russia was created under orders from Torshin or other Russian officials to serve as a front organization to help her gain access to American conservative groups like the NRA.
Butina showed her ability to forge relationships with American political players by forming a company in South Dakota with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who did fundraising for the NRA. But Torshin’s inroads into American conservative circles were even more impressive. At the NRA’s annual convention in May 2016, he met and spoke with Donald Trump Jr. At about the same time, Torshin sought to set up a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Putin. An American Christian political activist emailed a Trump campaign aide passing on Torshin’s suggestion for a Trump-Putin meeting.
Butina’s role as an assistant and protege of Torshin would be of obvious interest to the FBI as part of that broader investigation into Torshin’s activities. The charges brought against her may be part of an effort to get Butina to cooperate with federal prosecutors and share what she knows about Torshin.