Maria Butina: NRA member, lobbyist, and Kremlin spy?
A 29-year-old Russian woman named Maria Butina was arrested in Washington, DC, on Monday, the same day that US President Donald Trump met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has accused her of being part of a Russian government conspiracy to influence the 2016 US presidential election. She is said to have worked for the Russian government in the USA without having informed US authorities of that activity. US law dictates that all foreign lobbyists and diplomats must register as such with the DOJ. Butina is said to have been in the USA on a student visa.
It is difficult to say whether the timing of her arrest was a conscious decision or a coincidence. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that Butina could expect trouble from authorities. Her name was included on a long list of Russians who could have potentially been involved in attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
From a furniture store to the Russian Central Bank
Butina has written that she was a co-founder of the Russian organization "Right to Bear Arms" and that she has a seat on the organization's board of directors. Her social media profile consists mainly of internet memes, jokes and statistics with which she apparently hopes to convince readers that it is better to give people the right to bear arms than limit their access to them. She claims to have grown up with weapons, writing that her father was a hunter and taught her to shoot at an early age.
Butina was born in and grew up in the Russian city of Barnaul. She studied political science at the city's university. After she completed her studies, she worked as a furniture saleswoman. During that time she successfully built up a small chain of furniture stores. She also became involved in local politics. She supported various candidates and ran as a candidate herself in the primaries of the youth wing of the Kremlin-run United Russia party.
But Barnaul quickly became too small for her. At 22, Butina went to Moscow and began a new career. From there she was able to win over thousands of supporters for a Russia-wide organization campaigning for the right to own guns. She also became an assistant to Alexander Torshin, one of the country's most influential politicians. Torshin, a former senator for the United Russia party, is now the deputy director for the Central Bank of the Russian Federation.
Butina and Torshin shared a common interest: legalizing gun ownership and establishing contacts with American colleagues of the same bent, the National Rifle Association (NRA) in particular. The NRA is one of the world's largest lobbying organizations, rejects almost all gun control legislation, and has influenced a number of US elections through both contributions to political campaigns and advertising. Only two Russian citizens enjoy the special status of having been named NRA lifetime members: Torshin and Butina.
That membership also afforded Torshin the opportunity in 2011 to meet billionaire real-estate magnate Donald Trump, who is also a member of the NRA. After the 2011 meeting, Torshin praised Trump's support of "traditional family values." Citing his assistant Butina, Torshin said that Trump was actively engaged in "real cooperation with Russia." It now appears that Butina herself was the first Russian representative to ask Trump how he would work to improve relations between Russia and the USA at a public event in 2015.
In the FBI's sights
After Donald Trump's 2016 electoral victory, Butina suddenly came into the sights of the US media – alongside Russian hackers and security agents. According to US media reports, Butina presented herself variously as a representative of the Russian central bank, a gun rights advocate and a journalist.
She also drew attention when she began trying to establish contacts to political leaders in the US. Media reports suggest that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) later became interested in Torshin and Butina's activities as well – especially regarding the issue of whether the two helped funnel Russian donations to the NRA, and thus indirectly aided the Trump campaign. The NRA supported Trump's candidacy and donated funds to his campaign. Torshin was added to the US Treasury Department's sanctions list in April 2018.
US investigators suspect that Butina attempted to use her contacts at the NRA to establish a channel of communication between Russian authorities and an unnamed US political party – most likely the Republicans.