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Maria Valeryevna Butina (Russian: Мари́я Вале́рьевна Бу́тина, sometimes transliterated as Mariia Butina; born November 10, 1988)[3][4][5] is a Russian gun-rights activist. She is the founder of the "Right to Bear Arms" initiative, a Russian group.[6] Beginning in 2011, she worked as an assistant for Aleksandr Torshin, a former member of the Federation Council, a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.[7]

Maria Butina
Maria Butina.jpg
Butina in 2014
Native name
Мари́я Вале́рьевна Бу́тина
Born
Maria Valeryevna Butina

(1988-11-10) November 10, 1988 (age 30)
NationalityRussian
Alma mater
Conviction(s)Conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian state
Criminal penalty18 months in prison

In April 2018, Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire, provided funding for her gun-rights group.[8] In July 2018, while residing in Washington, D.C., Butina was arrested by the FBI and charged with acting as an agent of the Russian Federation "without prior notification to the Attorney General."[9]

In December 2018, she pled guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian state under 18 U.S.C. §951.[10][11][12][13] On April 26, 2019, a federal judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison.[14]

Contents

Early life and educationEdit

Butina was born on November 10, 1988, in the Siberian city of Barnaul, in Altai Krai, about 210 miles (340 km) north of the present Kazakhstan–Russia border. Her mother was an engineer and her father was an entrepreneur who established a furniture manufacturing business in Barnaul.[15] She grew up in the Siberian taiga—large boreal forests—where her father introduced her to guns and taught her to hunt.[11] Butina said: "It is a rare Siberian who can imagine himself without a rifle in the home."[16]

She studied political science at Altai State University and also received a teaching degree. At 19, she was elected to the public council of Altai Krai in the last direct election for the council.[17][15]

Business and politics careersEdit

Butina, at age 21, launched a furniture retail business in Altai Krai.[15] In 2011, she moved to Moscow and sold six of her seven furniture stores to start an advertising agency.[15][18] That same year, she participated in the Youth Primaries organized by the Young Guard of United Russia, the youth wing of the United Russia party, which she has described as "the current ruling political party in Moscow."[19]

Further in 2011, Butina founded Right to Bear Arms, described as a Russian gun-rights organization[16] that lobbied to change Russia's strict gun control laws. She began traveling back and forth to the U.S., initially with Aleksandr Torshin,[18] who was then a Senator in the Federation Council of Russia and a leading member of United Russia.[18] He had hired her as his "special assistant" that year.[7] In 2012, they lobbied the council to expand gun rights.[16] Butina resigned from her position as the head of Right to Bear Arms in late 2014.[20]

(According to Russians interviewed by RFE/RL, the organization was notable for avoiding opposition to Putin during the 2011–2013 Russian protests, for its "quixotic" support for a cause with little public support and strong government opposition — Putin himself had told Russians "I am deeply convinced that the free flow of firearms will bring a great harm and represents a great danger for us" — for introducing legislation in the Russian parliament that "never went anywhere", and for receding from public view after Butina stepped down as its head.[21] According to US prosecutors who prosecuted Butina on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, her love of guns was a ruse to advance Russia’s agenda within the Republican Party.)[7]

In 2013 she met Republican political operative Paul Erickson in Russia. The two became close, started dating, and eventually moved in together. In 2015, she emailed him a description of a proposed project to influence the Republican party to be friendlier to Russia, through the National Rifle Association (NRA).[12] In January 2015, Torshin became deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, and Butina worked as his special assistant until May 2017.[22][6] In 2017, Butina told The Washington Post that she never worked for the Russian government.[23]

In August 2016, she moved to the United States on a student visa, and enrolled as a graduate student in International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C.[24] While a student at American University, Butina got drunk on at least two separate occasions and bragged to her fellow students about her contacts in the Russian government; on both occasions, her classmates reported her to law enforcement, sources told CNN.[25]

In February 2016, Butina and Erickson began a South Dakota business, Bridges LLC.[22][26] Erickson later said the company was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies, which Butina commenced in mid-2016 American University in Washington.[27] In 2018, she completed a masters degree in international relations.[28]

Involvement in U.S. politicsEdit

National Rifle AssociationEdit

Torshin and Butina established a cooperative relationship between the NRA and Right to Bear Arms. Torshin has attended NRA annual meetings in the United States since at least 2011. Following the 2011 meeting, then NRA President David Keene expressed his support for Torshin's "endeavors" and extended an invitation to the 2012 meeting.[29] Torshin also attended NRA annual meetings in 2012 and 2013.[30] In November 2013, Keene was a guest at the conference of the Right to Bear Arms in Moscow.[19]

Butina and Torshin attended the 2014 NRA annual meeting as special guests of former NRA president Keene.[22][31] Butina attended the Women's Leadership Luncheon at the 2014 meeting as a guest of former NRA president Sandy Froman.[23][31] Butina presented to then NRA president Jim Porter a plaque from Right to Bear Arms. Afterwards, she tweeted "Mission accomplished." As Keene's guest, Butina rang the NRA's Liberty Bell, saying, "To the right to bear arms for citizens of the whole world."[19] Butina and Torshin also attended the 2015 NRA annual convention.[32]

In 2015, a number of NRA officials attended Right to Bear Arms's annual gun conference in Russia. Among them were Keene, gun manufacturer and NRA first vice president Pete Brownell,[33] conservative American political operative Paul Erickson, and Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke. One of their hosts was Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who in 2014 was sanctioned by the White House following Russia's annexation of Crimea. Clarke's trip cost $40,000, with all expenses paid by the NRA, Pete Brownell (an NRA board member and CEO of a gun-parts supply company) and Right to Bear Arms.[23][34][35] According to a disclosure Clarke filed, Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000 to cover his meals, lodging, transportation and other expenses.[18] During the meeting, Clarke met the Russian foreign minister and attended a conference at which Torshin spoke.[23][35] In November 2016, Torshin tweeted that he and Butina were lifetime NRA members.[30][36]

Republican PartyEdit

Butina has attempted to develop ties to conservative American politics. In a supporting affidavit to the government's support for pre-trial detention following her indictment in United States of America v. Maria Butina, the FBI stated that she had successfully sought ties to the Republican Party, where it is referred to as "POLITICAL PARTY 1".[5] According to The Daily Beast, she has presented herself as a "Russian central bank staffer, a leading gun rights advocate, a 'representative of the Russian Federation,' a Washington, D.C., graduate student, a journalist, and a connection between Team Trump and Russia" in order to gain access to "high-level contacts" in Washington.[22] At the 2014 NRA annual meeting, Butina took pictures with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former U.S. Senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum. At the 2015 NRA annual meeting, she met Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and in July 2015, she was present at the launch of Walker's 2016 presidential campaign.[19][30]

Obama administration officialsEdit

In 2015, Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and Butina met the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, Nathan Sheets, to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations.[37] Separately, they also met with a Federal Reserve vice chairman, Stanley Fischer and with a State Department official.[37][38][39]

Donald Trump campaignEdit

In a June 2015 article published in The National Interest, a conservative American international affairs magazine, just before Trump announced his candidacy for president, she urged better relations between the United States and Russia,[30] saying, "It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States." Her biography on the article did not mention that she worked for the Russian government.[19] The next month, Butina attended FreedomFest, where Trump gave a speech, and asked him from the audience about ending U.S. sanctions against Russia, to which he replied, "I don't think you'd need the sanctions."[19][40] Butina hosted a birthday party attended by Erickson and Trump campaign aides shortly after the 2016 election.[30]

United States of America v. Maria ButinaEdit

ComplaintEdit

United States of America v. Maria Butina
 
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Citations18 U.S.C. § 951.
Judge sittingDeborah A. Robinson
Prosecutor(s)Erik M. Kenerson[41]
Defendant(s)Maria Butina

On July 15, 2018, Butina was arrested in Washington, and charged with acting in the United States as an agent of a foreign government; specifically the Russian Federation, without prior notification to the Attorney General, a conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, to wit, 18 U.S.C. §951 (foreign relations, agents of foreign governments), in violation of 18 U.S.C. §371 (conspiracy).[42]

After her arrest, it was mistakenly reported she was charged with a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (22 U.S.C. §11 foreign agents and propaganda). United States law dictates that all lobbyists representing foreign governments must register as such with the Department of Justice.[11] Her attorney said that "the allegations of the indictment are essentially that her only illegal act was not registering."[43]

On July 18, Butina pleaded not guilty,[44] and a District Court judge ordered her jailed pending trial.[44] She is also said to be cooperating in a federal fraud investigation in South Dakota.[45] Maria Butina was held in solitary confinement in Alexandria Detention Center.[46]

AffidavitEdit

According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, from as early as 2015 and continuing through at least February 2017, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government, who, according to The New York Times, was believed to be Torshin. The court filings detail the Russian official's and Butina's efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in the Republican Party and in conservative politics—such as the National Rifle Association, the National Prayer Breakfast and some religious organizations—for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.[47]

The filings also describe certain actions taken by Butina to further this effort during multiple visits from Russia and, later, when she entered and resided in the United States on a student visa. The filings allege that she undertook her activities "without officially disclosing the fact that she was acting as an agent of Russian government, as required by law."[48]

Butina, Torshin, and Erickson have been subjects of an investigation by the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Erickson is referred to in Butina's indictment as "Person 1." In addition, George D. O'Neill Jr., a conservative writer and Rockefeller heir, is "Person 2."[30][27][49] Torshin has also been the subject of a probe by the FBI into whether the Russian government attempted to illegally funnel money to the NRA in order to help Trump win the presidency.[27][32]

The FBI began to monitor Butina in August 2016, after she had moved to the United States on an F-1 student visa. Rather than confront her immediately, the FBI chose to track her movements and gather information on whom she was meeting, and what her end goals were to be.[50]

Plea dealEdit

Butina's attorneys and federal prosecutors declared in a November 16, 2018, court filing that they had entered into plea negotiations.[51] On December 13, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent, while the original charge of failing to register as a foreign agent was dropped.[52][53] She faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison and, according to a CNN report, will "likely be deported after serving any time."[13]

On April 26, 2019, Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison by Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, in accordance with the recommendations of prosecutors.[54]

Russian reactionEdit

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had no prior knowledge of Butina.[55] Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement saying that Butina's arrest was designed to undermine the "positive results" of the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin.[56] She was arrested a day before Trump met his Russian counterpart.[28] Butina's father has called the accusations against her "a witch-hunt".[57]

Leonid Slutsky, head of the lower house of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, called Butina's case a "modern political inquisition."[58] Russia's Foreign Ministry accused the United States of forcing false confession from Butina.[59] According to the foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, "having created unbearable conditions for her and threatening her with a long jail sentence, she was literally forced to sign up to absolutely ridiculous charges."[60]

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

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External linksEdit