by Nick Hermosilla ‘19
Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights activist pleaded guilty, on December 13, to conspiracy charges and working as an unregistered foreign agent. Butina was initially arrested by the FBI in July while residing in Washington DC.
Beginning in 2015, and continuing until her arrest in 2018, Butina was acting as a Russian agent attempting to create unofficial communication lines between Russian government officially and high-ranking Republican figures. The case has painted a larger picture of the Russian influence operations being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
According to plea documents read in court, Butina was working under the direction of a Russian official named Aleksandr Torshin, who she worked for as a special assistant. Torshin is a former Russian senator, current member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and is now the head of Deputy Governor of Russia’s central bank. In order to establish these backchannels of communication, Butina worked with Republican political operative Paul Erickson.
The two began their work by meeting with multiple influential NRA officials at various NRA and Russian gun-rights conferences and dinners. Some of these social meetings, held in Russia, were attended by Torshin. Multiple former and current NRA officials are known to have come into contact with Butina based off of social media from between 2015 and 2016.
In addition to targeting the NRA, Butina sought to create influence within the Republican Party before the 2016 election, as described by the Justice Department documents on the case. Acting as a self described “representative of the Russian Federation” she met with Republican candidates including Scott Walker and Rick Santorum. And according to the Wall Street Journal, several Obama administration officials within the Federal Reserve and State Department met with Butina to discuss Russia-US economic ties. Additionally she was able to get close enough to Donald Trump during the his 2016 campaign to ask him a question on his opinion towards new sanctions on Russia.
The successful conviction of Butina has lead to response from the Russian government. On December 19, the Russian Foreign Ministry gave an official statement claiming that Butina was forced into giving a false confession. The Russian government has given no evidence to support this statement.