A 29-year-old Russian woman who entered the U.S. on a student visa was charged with seeking to influence American politics on behalf of Russia before and after the 2016 presidential election.
The U.S. arrested Mariia Butina and charged her with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, saying she formed a pro-gun group called th Right to Bear Arms in an effort to infiltrate organizations active in American politics.
The U.S. said she was working with a Russian Federation official — the description matches Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank — charged with “developing and executing a plan to identify and exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics who were in positions to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
Torshin this year was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for involvement in what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described as “a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”
The FBI reportedly has been investigating whether Russia siphoned money to the Trump campaign via the National Rifle Association. That’s not alleged in the Justice Department complaint.
According to an affidavit from an FBI agent, Butina worked with an unnamed American to jointly arrange meetings with influential Americans, including “an organization promoting gun rights,” to push Russian interests. Another American worked with Butina to arrange a series of dinners between influential Americans and Russian nationals.
Butina allegedly provided Torshin with descriptions of her speaking to a political candidate as well as a previous meeting at an annual meeting of a gun-rights group. She also provided biographies of U.S. politicians and executives of a gun rights group, a veiled reference that likely refers to the NRA for the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast.
One of the Americans that talked with Butina allegedly emailed someone else on Oct. 4, 2016, “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.],” the American wrote.
Those terms likely reference the Republican Party and the NRA. The FBI said that American was believed to be discussing Butina’s efforts to establish a back channel communication for Russian government representatives.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker met with Butina as he launched his presidential campaign, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. In a blog post, Butina said Walker greeted her in Russia, and photos were posted by a political group Walker set up, the newspaper added.
After a face-to-face meeting in Helinski, President Donald Trump on Monday accepted the denials of Russian President Vladimir Putin of interference in U.S. elections. Putin said Monday he did prefer Trump in the 2016 election on the basis that the American businessman was interested in normalizing U.S.-Russian relations.