A self-styled Russian gun rights advocate who cultivated close ties with the National Rifle Association on behalf of Russia was charged on Monday with conspiracy to infiltrate U.S. political organizations as part of Moscow's influence operations in the United States.
Maria Butina, 29, whose Twitter account describes her as the founder and board member of the "Right to Bear Arms" group and who worked as a special aide to a top Russian government official, was arrested on Sunday by the FBI in Washington.
Butina appeared in federal court on Monday afternoon to face charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government in the United States without notifying the attorney general. She was charged under a criminal statute generally used to prosecute foreign spies. A magistrate judge ordered her held, pending a bond hearing on Wednesday.
An FBI affidavit describes Butina as a "covert Russian agent" who visited the United States several times before entering on a student visa in August 2016 and living in Washington.
The affidavit doesn’t name the Russian official she worked for, but its descriptions match that of Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and a former senator in Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.
Butina's layer Robert Driscoll issued a statement denying that she was "an agent of the Russian Federation." He described her as a Russian national in the U.S. on a student visa.
Russian officials sanctioned
In April, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Torshin and 16 other senior Russian government officials in response to "a range of malign activity around the globe."
Torshin is accused of directing Butina to "act as an agent of Russia inside the United States" for the purpose of influencing American politics. According to the affidavit, the pair "took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ communication."
"These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation," the affidavit said.
The effort also included building relationships with U.S. political organizations, including the NRA, the nation’s largest gun lobby.
The NRA has not commented on the charges but has previously denied any wrongdoing in connection with Torshin's outreach to the organization.
Torshin, a lifetime member of the NRA, has openly discussed his ties with the organization on Twitter, claiming that the relationship provided him access to then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
The charges were announced by the Justice Department shortly after President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met in Helsinki.
At a joint press conference with Putin in the Finnish capital, Trump said he did not believe Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, contradicting the U.S. intelligence community's assessment.
Though quietly sanctioned by the Kremlin, the secret influence operation by Torshin and Butina was carried out apart from the wider Russian effort to sway the outcome of the U.S. election.
Operating on the assumption that Trump would win the race, they sought to use the NRA as a conduit to the Republican Party in a bid to change its "negative and aggressive" foreign policy toward Russia, according to the affidavit.
Yuval Weber, a Russia expert at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, said Butina's aim was to use ideological affinity between the NRA and Russia to influence American politics.
"What she was trying to do was to let the NRA know and understand that people who thought like them, who had the same ideas about gun rights, also live in Russia," Weber said.
The idea was that "if the NRA thought there were people like them in Russia, that would essentially provide an entryway for Russian influence in the United States, and essentially provide a method of bringing the NRA, its political contacts and its money into Russia."
In carrying out the conspiracy, Butina was allegedly aided by two unidentified American citizens. The first U.S. citizen worked with Butina "to jointly arrange introductions to U.S persons having influence in Americans politics," including the gun lobby, according to the affidavit.
In October 2016, the U.S. citizen emailed an acquaintance: "Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key Republican Party leaders through, of all conduits, the NRA."
The second U.S. citizen was involved in a string of email communications in 2016 and 2017 regarding Butina’s efforts to arrange a series of “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington and New York for Russians and influential Americans.
'Upcoming major conferences'
The effort included attending National Prayer Breakfast meetings, NRA gatherings and Republican Party events. In a March 2015 email seized by the FBI, Butina requests a budget of $125,000 to participate in "all upcoming major conferences" of the Republican Party.
In a March 14, 2016, email, Butina wrote to one of her American contacts that "a representative of the Russian presidential administration had expressed approval ‘for building this communication channel,'" according to the affidavit. All “that we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side. The rest is easier," she wrote.
Less than two months before the November presidential election, Butina emailed the two Americans suggesting another "friendship and dialogue" dinner in early October because "we only have 2 months left before the US elections and it’s the time for building an advisors team on Russia for a new president."
The two later discussed whether Butina should volunteer as a U.S. election observer from Russia but agreed that "the risk would be too high."
Torshin wrote that "the risk of provocation is too high and the ‘media hype’ which comes after it."
"Only incognito!" she wrote. "Right now everything has to be quiet and careful."
Shortly after Trump declared victory in the 2016 election, Butina tweeted: “America gets Republican Donald Trump for President. Supporter of the right to bear arms and the restoration of relations with Russia.”