On April 25, 2019, Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison after she admitted to conspiring to act as a covert Russian agent. Butina will be deported to Russia after she is released from prison.
Maria Butina, the accused Russian operative, didn’t just allegedly cultivate the National Rifle Association on behalf of the Kremlin. The 29-year-old Russian national also braced one of America’s best-known businessmen, pushing him to increase his investments in his bank in Moscow—a bank that was also facing financial collapse.
The encounter, detailed to The Daily Beast by multiple sources, paints a more detailed picture than previously known of the actions of the alleged foreign agent in the United States. It indicates that courting American politicos wasn’t her only mission. She also took a keen interest in contentious, complex matters involving international finance—all while attempting to influence the primary financier of what would become Washington’s most Trump-friendly foreign-policy think tank.
Butina, who is currently incarcerated, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she worked as a covert operative for the Kremlin, infiltrating the NRA and American conservative politics through a charm offensive that included, according to U.S. prosecutors, a series of sexual favors.
“I would think it’s even more evidence that she had a broader agenda, she was doing other work for the Kremlin,” said Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Pentagon official focused on Russia. “It’s interesting that she was not only seeking to provide ways for the Russian government to put money into the U.S. political system in order to influence our electoral outcome, but that she clearly also was interested in luring American money to Russia.”
The story starts in June 2008, with legendary American businessman Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the one-time CEO of insurance and financial services giant AIG. Greenberg’s Starr Russia Investments III bought 20 percent of Investtorgbank, a Russian bank. Banki.ru reported that the fund Greenberg headed paid about $100 million for its share of the bank. In August 2009, Starr invested an additional $8 million in the bank, according to court filings in the state of New York.
The next year, Investtorgbank Chairman Vladimir Gudkov boasted that business was booming. The bank was looking to expand into Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, he told Interfax. He sounded proud that Greenberg’s first foray into investment in the Russian banking sector would be with his bank.
But within a few years, things went south. In December 2014, according to court filings, the Russian Central Bank started auditing the bank’s books. Lawyers for Starr say Gudkov and others in the bank engaged in egregious self-dealing, frittering away tens of millions of dollars. The Russian government auditors concluded that by the end of 2014, the bank was insolvent.
In April 2015, while that audit was still underway, Butina and Alexander Torshin—a Russian Central Bank official later accused of money laundering and sanctioned by the U.S. government—attended a private discussion of Russia’s financial situation at the Center for the National Interest, according to Reuters. Greenberg participated in the meeting.
Unlike most Washington foreign-policy think tanks, which are generally hawkish, the Center for the National Interest is known for facilitating conversations between Kremlin officials and American foreign-policy leaders. It is viewed as a home for the foreign-policy restraint that the president himself seems to favor.
The Center’s honorary chairman—former secretary of state and accused war criminal Henry Kissinger—is one of Vladimir Putin’s closest international confidants; the two have met 17 times over the years. Kissinger also advised Donald Trump to move closer to Russia as a way of containing China’s rise on the global stage. Board member Richard Burt is also a lobbyist for Russian old giant Gazprom. Jon Huntsman, Trump’s ambassador to Russia, previously served on the Center’s board. And David Keene, whom Butina appears to have cultivated, is also a board member. Butina also wrote for the Center’s magazine.
People close to the Center have risen to prominence in the Trump administration, most notably Alexander Alden, who was a senior fellow at the Center for seven months in 2017, according to his LinkedIn page. Alden then left the Center for the Pentagon. And in May 2018, he became director of defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council, where he currently works.
Trump himself gave the first major foreign policy speech of his presidential campaign at an event the Center hosted, on April 27, 2016 at Washington’s tony Mayflower Hotel. Burt helped craft the talk. Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak attended, seated in the front row.
At a reception before the speech, Kislyak and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions had a conversation. That encounter later caused huge headaches for Sessions, who went on to become Trump’s attorney general: He didn’t mention it when pressed during his confirmation hearing on whether he had ever had spoken with Russian nationals during the campaign. Subsequent reports of the encounter generated heated criticism of the attorney general. Shortly after that criticism emerged, Sessions recused himself from supervising the investigation into possible interference in the 2016 election by the Kremlin. He handed off the reins to his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who immediately named Robert Mueller as the head of the probe.
Greenberg is a main source of funding for the Center, which arguably has closer relationships with Kremlin officials than any other Washington think tank. From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2015, its total net revenue was $11.6 million; Greenberg’s $5.6 million in contributions nearly half of its income. Greenberg is chairman emeritus of the Center’s board and received its lifetime achievement award in 2017.
According to multiple sources familiar with her actions, Butina appeared to be aware that the Russian bank in which Greenberg had invested was in trouble.
Sources familiar with Butina’s activity told The Daily Beast that she approached his Starr investment empire and recommended he invest more money in the flailing bank. The move left observers shocked and disturbed—a little-known twenty-something who was closely linked to a top official in the Russian Central Bank appeared to be telling a major American financier how to handle his Russia investments.
These sources said it was unclear if she was acting alone, providing a covert message on behalf of the Russian government, or looking to enrich herself through a potential transaction. The fact that Butina carried business cards claiming she was a Central Bank employee only added to the confusion. (A person familiar with her testimony to the Senate intelligence committee said Butina claimed she never actually worked for the bank, but rather distributed the cards to enhance her status.)
Dimitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest, learned about Butina’s outreach, according to two sources, who said he communicated to her that she needed to drop it.
Regardless, Butina’s efforts to influence Greenberg’s investment decisions did not succeed. Reuters reported on Aug. 27, 2015, that the Russian Central Bank seized InvesttorgBank, intending to investigate the bank’s financial health and protect its creditors. The Central Bank concluded the bank was racked by “massive fraud,” according to court filings’ characterization of their assessment.
In January of this year, Tass reported that Gudkov was detained in Monaco over accusations from Russian law enforcement officials that he embezzled 7 billion rubles. Kommersant reported that Monaco refused to extradite him.
BuzzFeed reported earlier Tuesday that federal investigators are scrutinizing a number of financial transactions linked to Butina, including a $90,000 transaction with Alfa Bank. Her attorney told BuzzFeed the payments were neither illegal nor remarkable.
Lawyers for Butina and Greenberg—who last year paid a $9.9 million settlement with the New York Attorney General’s Office to settle fraud allegations—declined to comment for this piece. A spokesperson for Starr Companies did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesman for the Center declined to comment as well.
To Steve Hall, who spent years as the CIA’s chief of Russian operations, the situation sounds awfully familiar.
“The whole description of her reaching out to a rich American businessman and saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to invest more money or the bank’s going to go belly-up and you’re going to lose money’—that’s perfectly consistent with Russian—if you want to refer to them as ‘business practices,’ I guess you could,” he said.
“Trying to milk that last drop of juice out of the lemon before it’s cast aside would not be inconsistent, certainly, with Russian business practices,” he added.