Misfire: Maria Butina’s strange route from Russia to US jail
MOSCOW (AP) — When Maria Butina arrived in Moscow from Siberia in 2011 to launch a Russian version of the National Rifle Association, her shooting range coach said she didn’t even know how to fire a weapon.
She learned fast, but her far-fetched bid to liberalize gun rights in Russia flamed out. By the time she arrived in Washington in 2014 to network with the NRA, she was peddling a Russian gun rights movement that was already dead.
Fellow gun enthusiasts and arms industry officials described to The Associated Press the strange trajectory of a Russian gun lobby project that appeared doomed from the start — with President Vladimir Putin among its many opponents.
U.S. court papers suggest the movement was a ruse, created to allow Butina and influential patron Alexander Torshin to infiltrate the NRA and pursue covert Russian back channels to American conservatives as Donald Trump rose to power.
Jailed since July on charges of working as an undeclared foreign agent, the 29-year-old Butina faces a hearing Monday in Washington, the latest Russian accused of meddling in U.S. politics and courting Trump.
She pleaded not guilty, and her lawyer calls the charges exaggerated. The Russian government calls her a political prisoner.
Analysts suggest Butina and Torshin started as freelancers, endeavoring to create something the Kremlin was signaling it wanted: a line of communication with Republican lawmakers to negotiate a détente that would ease crippling economic sanctions.
It’s unclear when, and to what degree, Russian secret services got involved. But it’s clear that no one in Russia tried to stop it.
Butina and Torshin — a longtime senator who’s now deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank — were oddly overt in their activities. They shared their U.S. travels widely on social media and displayed none of the tradecraft typical of spies.
And they suffered no punishment for championing gun rights, even though many in Russia’s leadership see the idea as subversive.
“She was saying, ‘I always thought if I was going to be in jail, I’d be in jail in Russia for advocating for gun rights, and now I’m in jail in America for advocating better U.S.-Russian relations. There’s something kind of screwed up about that,’” said Robert Driscoll, Butina’s U.S. attorney.
One possible reason she remained untouched in Russia: Evidence presented by the FBI suggests she and Torshin had links to Russian intelligence.
Guns are tightly restricted in Russia, a country where extremist threats loom and organized crime and corruption fester. Civilians can own only hunting rifles and smoothbore firearms and must undergo significant background checks for those. Firearms advertising is illegal, and polls show most Russians are wary of looser gun laws.
Gun statistics in Russia are difficult to come by. The Small Arms Survey, which looks at the issue globally, estimated in 2010 that about 9 percent of Russians own a firearm, but only about 60 percent of the 13 million guns in civilian hands are legally registered.
Allowing Russians to own handguns would be a lucrative opportunity for arms manufacturers — a prospect that launched Butina’s rise.
Born in the Siberian city of Barnaul, Butina flirted with libertarianism and gun rights activism, and a failed political campaign got her noticed — in her words — by higher powers who pulled her to Moscow in 2011 to “bring the (gun rights) project to life.”
Those powers, according to a representative in the Russian arms industry, were billionaire transport magnate Konstantin Nikolayev and his wife, Svetlana Nikolayeva, a sport shooter and CEO of Russian gun manufacturer ORSIS. Nikolayeva, the representative said, tapped Butina to become the face of her pet project — a lobbying group that would come to be known as The Right to Bear Arms, modeled on the NRA.
The Nikolayevs hired a PR firm to give Butina a makeover, according to the representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he knows the Nikolayevs personally and he fears professional repercussions. The wonkish girl from the provinces became a charismatic spokeswoman for Russian guns.
Boris Pashchenko, the head of a shooting club in Moscow, worked closely with Butina in those early days. “I saw (Butina’s group) at a shooting range when they first started organizing,” he told the AP. “Butina had never fired a gun before; I was the one who taught her how.”
Her lawyer said he couldn’t comment on her shooting ability.
Fellow activists said she was an effective organizer, putting together well-financed rallies and uniting disparate gun rights supporters — including opposition libertarians and pro-Putin officials. She studied the NRA’s playbook, reciting its slogans and statistics.
Meanwhile, a sea change was taking place in U.S. politics. Many conservatives increasingly saw the left as enemies with which they had little in common, and began viewing Putin’s Russia — nationalist, traditionalist, newly devout — as a like-minded friend.
Torshin took note. According to his own accounts, he frequently visited the U.S. while in Russia’s upper house of parliament from 2001 to 2015, befriended NRA members, bought a lifetime membership and even monitored the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
A key ally was lawyer G. Kline Preston IV, who introduced him to then-NRA President David Keene.
Keene, Preston and the NRA did not respond to requests for comment about Torshin. When AP journalists visited Preston’s office in Nashville, a portrait of Putin was hanging in the main entrance.
Torshin met Butina in Russia at one of her group’s rallies in 2011, and within months, they were collaborating on legislation to liberalize pistol ownership, according to those involved.
But when Torshin submitted the bill in July 2012, it was torn apart.
The timing was tough: It came days after James Holmes fired on a Colorado movie theater with multiple weapons, killing 12 and wounding dozens.
But the idea had already met resistance from Moscow’s mayor, Russia’s interior minister and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who said later that year: “The (gun) rules that exist in the United States are absolutely unacceptable for Russia, or even for the United States itself.”
Torshin’s bill almost seemed designed to fail. Bills are rarely presented without tacit Kremlin approval, yet Putin himself said a few months earlier that “free movement of firearms will bring large chaos, and present great danger.” A Russian arms industry official said civilian gun sales were so politically sensitive that his company refused to mention the prospect in annual reports or discussions with investors.
“They wanted to be a Russian NRA in terms of influence. But they knew you’re never in Russia going to have a full-on Second Amendment arm-yourself-against-the-tyranny thing. That will get you thrown in jail,” Butina’s U.S. lawyer Robert Driscoll told the AP.
The dream of Russian gun rights, it seemed, was over. The Nikolayevs, who once hoped to make money from the idea, were pulling out.
Yet Torshin and Butina pressed on, and the Right to Bear Arms increased its international outreach, focusing on the NRA.
In 2013, an NRA delegation attended a Moscow conference led by Butina. Visitors included then-NRA boss Keene and Paul Erickson, a Republican operative who would become Butina’s romantic partner in the U.S. and help her make inroads with the American right, according to U.S. prosecutors.
Torshin and Butina talked with the U.S. visitors about reviving gun rights legislation, according to Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation, part of the 2013 delegation.
But they didn’t mention Kremlin opposition to the bill, he said, and their lobbying group seemed anything but marginalized. He thought their meeting, at a major convention center, “had some government blessing,” Gottlieb told the AP.
Even as Butina and Torshin used the Right to Bear Arms to attract U.S. attention, the group was falling apart. Opposition libertarians bristled at Butina’s outreach to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, according to former collaborators.
In late 2014, Butina surprised her followers by resigning as head of the Right to Bear Arms. “After she left, I’ve not heard of them doing anything meaningful. It is a shadow of its former self,” said Libertarian Party member and gun enthusiast Alexey Ovsiyenko.
But her U.S. networking was blossoming. As the U.S. presidential campaign heated up, she and Torshin met with GOP figures at the 2015 NRA convention in Nashville — including, Torshin tweeted, Donald Trump.
Butina and Torshin organized another NRA visit in December 2015 to Moscow, where they discussed gun rights. Yet Putin remained opposed. He announced the creation of a new National Guard a few months later, in part “to limit the circulation of weapons in the country.”
Butina continued to champion guns on social media, and moved to the U.S. in 2016 for graduate studies at American University.
Based on Twitter messages and other exchanges, the FBI says Butina moved to Washington on Torshin’s order to leverage their NRA contacts — and lay the groundwork for a long-term influence campaign.
Instead, it led to her arrest and indictment.
Charlton reported from Paris. Lisa Marie Pane in Boise, Idaho, contributed.