If ever a fox was put in charge of a chicken coup, Russian official Alexander Torshin was it. For years, Spanish police had him under investigation and reportedly intended to arrest him for involvement with the Russian mafia. But in January 2015 he was appointed deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank, whose functions include fighting corruption and money-laundering.
Of course, that was when Torshin was a Kremlin favorite.
Then, last July, a young Russian woman named Maria Butina was nabbed by the FBI and charged with espionage, and Torshin has been under a cloud, a large black one, ever since. Butina, 30, was working for him.
On Thursday, Butina pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent in the United States by infiltrating Republican political circles through groups such as the National Rifle Association. Butina (rather like Michael Cohen with Donald Trump) decided to finger Torshin (identified in court documents as "Russian Official”) as the man who gave her orders. And this links the operation directly to the Kremlin.
In fact, the plea agreement spells out the connection: “Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics. Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation, acting through Russian Official.”
Torshin, who was placed on the U.S. sanctions list last April, resigned from his bank post on Nov. 30, ostensibly because he turned 65. But the law allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the tenure of high-level officials, and many Russian observers say that Torshin’s departure was connected to the Butina case.
As Russian political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov said this week: “Torshin has become an inconvenient figure. He now needs to go completely into the shadows. Forever, I am afraid.” In fact, Torshin reportedly stopped showing up at the Russian Bank right after Butina’s arrest in July, first going on a long vacation, and then telling the bank that he was ill.
Butina’s association with Torshin began in 2011 when, as deputy speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, Torshin hired her as his special assistant. In that same year, Butina founded the Russian organization A Right to Bear Arms, and Torshin became a patron of the group. The two began traveling to the U.S., where they developed a relationship with the NRA and began attending their annual meetings. Butina moved to the U.S. on a student visa in August 2016, enrolling as a graduate student at American University.
On Tuesday, after news of Butina’s expected plea agreement broke, Putin dismissed the idea that she had ties with the Russian security services: “I went and asked all the heads of our intelligence services, who is this? No one knows anything about her at all.” But, according to a July 18 memorandum filed by prosecutors in Butina’s case, the FBI found evidence that she was in contact with members of Russia’s security and intelligence services.
John McLaughlin, former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, described Butina as an example of Russian “espionage lite,” operating openly but hiding the direction and support she got from the Russian government.
Steve Hall, a former CIA chief of Russian operations, said Thursday: “It’s my theory that Butina is not actually a staff officer of any Russian intelligence service. She is somebody who has been co-opted by somebody else in the Russian government to do a job.”
That somebody was probably Torshin, who praised Butina in a 2017 message by comparing her favorably with the infamous Russian intelligence agent Anna Chapman, arrested in 2010. Torshin himself has such close ties with the Russian security services that he might be considered one of the siloviki, security and police officials who have gained tremendous power and wealth as cronies of ex-spy, now-president, Putin.
After completing studies in jurisprudence at the All-Union Legal Correspondence Institute in 1978, Torshin worked in what was then the Russian Republic Prosecutor’s Office, an agency that was closely tied to the KGB. Later, as deputy speaker of the Federation Council, Torshin was appointed to the Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee, an elite body of officials from the security and intelligence services headed by the chief of the FSB, now Alexander Bortnikov. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB was was replaced by the Russian FSB.)
A member of the pro-Putin United Russia Party, Torshin, who speaks English fluently, has been a staunch advocate for Kremlin interests. (He received the prestigious “Order of Honor” state award in 2008.) While in the Federation Council, Torshin headed the parliamentary commission to investigate the shocking September 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan. Although the commission criticized local law enforcement agencies for their carelessness in responding to the attack, its final report did not find fault with federal authorities, despite strong evidence that they bore much of the blame for more than 300 deaths, many of them children. Torshin announced in December 2006 that “the terrorist attack in Beslan mobilized the resources of the state that helped turn the tide in the fight against terrorism for the better.”
A long-time supporter of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Torshin advocated sending in Russian troops to quell the Maidan protests in 2013-14, declaring in an interview: “I don’t understand those who call Maidan a peaceful protest, and who call supporters of federalization [rebels in Eastern Ukraine] terrorists and separatists.”
In addition to his relentless advocacy of gun rights for Russians, Torshin has called for strengthening the Russian Criminal Code to include forced castration for pedophiles and life sentences for drug dealers. In 2012, after the members of Pussy Riot were arrested, Torshin wrote: “They fight against us covertly, slyly and systematically, using the latest internet technologies…The Russian Orthodox Church is opposed to the negative processes taking place in society. Therefore, it is not surprising that the church has become the object of a massive attack, the purpose of which is to discredit this most important institution.”
A prolific tweeter with over 30,000 Twitter followers, Torshin can sometimes be indiscreet. Thus, in January 2016, he wrote: “Watching the biathlon relay. And how their surnames translate: the Ukrainian—as Fat, the Slovenian—basically as Fuck! Could hang a sign saying ‘over 18?’ After all, children are watching...”
Given his ultra-conservative views, Torshin was a good choice to run one of the Kremlin’s operations to influence U.S. politics by coopting gun advocates and conservative Trump supporters. People like Don Jr., who reportedly has met Torshin more than once, probably found him appealing. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told Yahoo News after having dinner with Torshin in February 2017 that Torshin is “sort of the [American] conservatives’ favorite Russian.”
Torshin’s job as state secretary of the Russian Central Bank did not involve policy making, but rather the management of relations with the government and parliament. According to sources within the bank cited by the BBC, Torshin’s colleagues took a dim view of his gun rights campaign and his frequent trips to the U.S., which the bank was never asked to authorize. One source is quoted as saying: “The Central Bank avoids politics, and his activities outside the bank were unpleasant surprises for its leadership.”
Despite this lofty tone, the bank has had its share of scandals. Just last year, a former first deputy chairman of the bank, Minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukaev, was convicted of bribery in a dramatic Moscow show trial. And back in 2006, the bank’s first deputy chairman, Andrei Kozlov, who was an advocate of widely resented banking reforms, was gunned down in a Moscow street. But in general the bank is a bastion of discreet, grey-suited financial and banking experts who shy away from publicity.
Although the Kremlin has not commented publicly about the allegations of Torshin’s involvement in the Butina case, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Butina’s detention in July and claimed on Friday that she had been tortured into cooperating with prosecutors.
A blogger for the radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) drew a contrast Friday between people fighting for their rights in Russia who refuse to submit, and would rather starve in hunger strikes, and Butina, whose confession to save herself from prison humiliated the foreign ministry that had insisted on her innocence: “This whole rotten ruling Russian team thinks and does the same when they have to choose between the message they send to people on TV about patriotism and the Motherland above all, and saving their own skin. Agent Butina, dressed in an orange prison uniform, has set an example.”
Does Butina really have that much to tell U.S. prosecutors? According to the statement of offense attached to her plea agreement: “Butina was aware that Russian Official [Torshin] sometimes acted in consultation with the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], in addition to his superiors at the Russian Central Bank.”
The statement cites as an example Torshin’s request from Butina for a note explaining why he had to travel to the U.S. to attend the annual NRA meeting in 2016: “Butina knew that Russian Official would share this note with his superiors at the Russian Central Bank and the MFA.” In fact, Torshin’s superiors in his American operations were not the bank, which was completely out of the loop regarding his visits to the U.S., or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the Kremlin and the security services.
Torshin personifies the system of “informal management” of Russia that emerged after the Soviet collapse and developed further under Putin, degrading legitimate government institutions. As Vladimir Pastukhov explained, Torshin, who rose in the political hierarchy as a fairly typical Communist apparatchik, became a key person in a very complex scheme, which does not fit in any constitutional framework: “Mr. Torshin has become part of this internal mechanism of power that exists somewhere on the border of the special services, crime and bureaucracy.”
Meanwhile as of Friday, Torshin, like Trump, was still tweeting away, now from his native Kamchatka, a remote peninsula in Russia’s Far East, where he purports to be enjoying himself by chowing down on local fish. “Smelt from Kamchatka,” he tweeted (in Russian) along with a photograph. “The most delicious in the world. Caught just now. A kilometer from my native village Mitoga.” And later, “What more can one need? Here is salt, fish, sauce, local and imported vodka.”
Torshin also retweeted, with no comment, a rather colorful photograph of a fox.
Correction: A typographical error in an earlier version of this story has been corrected to place the Beslan incident in 2004 rather than 2002.