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DOJ Charges Russian Gun Rights Activist Maria Butina With Acting As A Foreign Agent

FBI counterintelligence agents have arrested a 29-year-old Russian woman for acting as a Kremlin agent over the past three years while working to develop relationships with high-ranking National Rifle Association (NRA) officials.

Maria Butina, who had been living in Washington and graduated with a master’s degree in international relations from American University, was arrested on Sunday after the FBI conducted an investigation and searched two of Butina’s electronic devices, The Huffington Post reports.

According to an affidavit attached to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on Saturday, Butina “took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication.” Kevin Helson, an FBI agent with the counterintelligence division within the bureau’s Washington field office, said Butina sought to use the NRA to gain access to U.S. officials to pursue interests of the Russian government.

Butina is the founder of a Russian gun rights group called “Right to Bear Arms,” and her activism dates back to at least 2014, when she attended the NRA convention in Indianapolis, HuffPost reports. It was through her gun rights advocacy work that she became closely connected with Paul Erickson, a Republican political operative.

In the affidavit, the FBI alleges that Butina came to the U.S. under the direction of a Russian official. While the Russian official is unnamed, it appears that, based on the description, the Russian official is her longtime mentor Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation and close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, ABC News reports.

Torshin, according to ABC News, is also a lifetime member of the NRA, and had attended several of the organization’s events until he was sanctioned, along with Russian oligarchs, by the U.S.

Butina and Torshin had accompanied NRA board members on a trip to Moscow in December 2015, and had sat at a table with Donald Trump Jr. at the NRA convention in May 2016. The two also attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. in 2017, where President Donald Trump was the keynote speaker.

The affidavit also contains quotes from numerous private messages between Butina and the Russian official, as well as with an unnamed U.S. person, before the 2016 presidential election. The affidavit notes that she met with both individuals as they developed an “influence operation,” HuffPost reports.

In 2015, Butina emailed the U.S. individual, saying that the NRA held a “central place and influence” in an unnamed political party, and was the party’s “largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events.” The U.S. person emailed an acquaintance the following year, saying, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin” and officials of an unnamed political party through an unnamed gun rights organization.

Butina also exchanged messages with the Russian official on Twitter, discussing their strategies and the importance of their work.

“Time will tell,” Butina wrote. “We made our bet. I am following our game.”

“No doubt,” the Russian official responded. “Of course we will win … And it is not about winning today’s fight (although we are striving for it) but to win the entire battle. This is the battle for the future, it cannot be lost! Or everyone will lose.”

In a statement, Butina’s attorney said that her actions were nothing more than “open and public networking” by a foreign student, not some covert operation.

Butina is currently being held without bond, and will have a hearing later this week, according to a press release from the Justice Department.

Emily has also authored political articles for Restless Magazine and numerous inspirational and empowering pieces for Project Wednesday. When she isn't writing, she can be found flying off to her next adventure, attempting new recipes, listening to one of her infinite playlists on Spotify, or cuddling with her dogs. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @emilycveith.