Who is Maria Butina? NRA-linked gun activist charged with operating as a Russian agent

Maria Butina, a Russian graduate student with links to the NRA, was just arrested for being a Russian agent

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 16, 2018 5:21PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

A Russian graduate student with connections to the NRA has been arrested for working as an agent of the Russian Federation without registering as such.

The criminal complaint has accused Maria Butina of acting as a Russian agent despite not registering with the United States attorney general, according to NPR. Butina entered the United States in August 2016 on a student via to study international relations at American University, but is accused of having secretly worked for the Russian government. The affidavit claims that Butina corresponded with a Russian official using email, Twitter and other electronic means; although the official isn't directly named in the document, it fits the description of former legislator Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department in April.

"BUTINA'S efforts in the United States to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation were diverse and multifaceted," the affidavit explained, "including BUTINA'S efforts to organize a series of 'friendship and dialogue' dinners, some of which are believed to have taken place in the District of Columbia, as well as BUTINA'S attendance at two National Prayer Breakfasts in the District of Columbia."

One passage in the affidavit would seem to implicate the NRA, the pro-gun organization with which Butina and Torshin were already well-known to have ties:

On October 4, 2016, U.S. Person 1 sent an email to an acquaintance," the affidavit explains. "The email covered a number of topics. Within the email, U.S. Person 1 stated, 'Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I've been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].' Based on my training, experience, and familiarity with this investigation, I believe that this email describes U. S. Person 1's involvement in BUTINA'S  efforts to establish a 'back channel' communication for representatives of the Government of Russia.

This would confirm a story about Butina's relationship with the Russian government that was reported by The Daily Beast in February 2017, starting with a birthday party held by Butina shortly after Trump's election:

As chilled vodka flowed through an ice sculpture—a bottle imprinted with the Soviet hammer and sickle—she took some time to brag. She brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, two individuals who were present said. On other occasions, in one of her graduate classes, she repeated this claim.

“She said so in my class. And she said so several times in the last semester,” Svetlana Savranskaya, Butina’s former American University professor and a staffer at the National Security Archive, told The Daily Beast. “She is a former journalist, so she keeps up her connections in Russia. And she also works and [claims to] keep connections with a member of the Russian Duma.”

The Washington Post elaborated on Butina's relationship with the NRA:

Butina, a former Siberian furniture owner, founded a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms and became an assistant to Russian central banker and former senator Alexander Torshin, who is a lifetime member of the NRA.

She began reaching out to NRA members and other American gun enthusiasts in 2013, on several occasions hosting NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow, including one delegation that included former Milwaukee Sheriff Dave Clarke. She and Torshin also attended a series of NRA events in the United States starting in 2014.

As she traveled the U.S., she had a number of key interactions with the Trump campaign. In June 2015, as Trump announced his candidacy, Butina wrote a column in the National Interest, a conservative U.S. magazine, suggesting that only by election a Republican could the U.S. and Russia hope to improve relations.

Butina also had a close relationship with Republican Party activist Paul Erickson, although it is unclear what to any extent he is involved in the matters that have caused her incarceration.

Butina has also attracted attention for asking Trump a question about US-Russia relations during a libertarian convention known as FreedomFest in Las Vegas in July 2015.

"My question will be about foreign politics. If you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy [sic]? Or you have any other ideas?" Butina asked Trump.

After taking the opportunity to criticize President Barack Obama and America's trade policies, Trump told Butina that "I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin… I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? And I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well."

It is worth noting that, independent of any outright collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government, the American right-wing has become increasingly fond of the dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin in recent years. As Salon's Heather Digby Parton reported in January, many on the right were drawn to Putin's hyper-masculine public image, which the despot has carefully cultivated over the years as a way of creating a cult of personality around himself. In addition, many on the far right are drawn to Russia as a seeming embodiment of the type of government they'd like to see in place in America — authoritarian, intolerant of liberal social movements and unabashedly racist (i.e., "white nationalist") in its ideology.

The news about Butina's alleged involvement in Russian meddling in American politics comes at a bad time for the Republican Party. Trump's recent joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been harshly criticized as making major concessions to Putin for nothing in return, siding with Putin over America's own intelligence agencies on Russia's meddling in American elections and continuing to try to discredit Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. Because the NRA has a considerable amount of control over the Republican Party, it could also suffer major political damage if it is implicated in the Trump-Russia scandal.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alexander Torshin Donald Trump Maria Butina Nra Paul Erickson Robert Mueller Russia