Maria Butina, whose years-long mission to build ties between Russia, the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party led to her arrest this week, has ties to Russian intelligence, federal prosecutors alleged on Wednesday.
Among documents uncovered in Butina’s apartment after her arrest on Sunday was a “hand-written” note asking, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” the Justice Department said in a court filing. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Butina’s mentor, the pro-Putin Russian politician Alexander Torshin, even guffawed over Butina’s emerging political notoriety last year by comparing her to Anna Chapman, another young Russian woman living in the United States who was arrested in a major 2010 spy-ring breakup.
“Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” a “Russian official” believed to be Torshin told her in March 2017, prosecutors claimed.
“Based on the Russian Official’s comments, the Court should conclude the defendant is considered to be on par with other covert Russian agents,” prosecutors contended.
FBI surveillance also captured Butina in March 2018 “sharing a private meal” with a person whom U.S. intelligence believes is “a Russian intelligence officer” under diplomatic cover. Her contact information, recovered by the FBI, includes “individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB,” including an email account with an “FSB-associated domain.”
Prosecutors issued the filing to argue that Butina ought to be locked up ahead of her trial for allegedly being an “undeclared agent of the Russian Federation,” owing to what they contend is a substantial risk she will flee the country. Her Washington D.C. apartment’s lease expires at the end of the month, and her belongings are packed “in a manner consistent” with a move, they contended, and she had taken steps to acquire a visa permitting her travel outside the country.
Butina’s major U.S. political contact – and apparent lover – allegedly “visited a U-Haul truck rental facility” the day before her arrest, suggesting for the first time a rationale for the timing of her arrest the day before a high profile Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit in Helsinki.
“FBI surveillance over the past week has confirmed that Butina has access to funds and an intention to move money outside of the United States,” prosecutors wrote in the filing.
The revelation of Butina’s arrest and charging this week opened another front in a multifaceted saga of Russian influence in American politics. While Butina and her alleged work on behalf of Russia touched the Trump campaign (she tried to set up a 2016 meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin and in 2015 prompted Trump to say he would “get along very nicely with Putin”), her activities in America went deeper. Through essentially infiltrating the NRA over her stated interest in Russian gun rights, Butina sought to use the supremely influential U.S. gun lobby to pivot U.S. right-wing politics in a pro-Russia direction, an FBI affidavit alleged Monday.
But Butina’s principal Russian liaison wasn’t known to be an intelligence official. Instead, it was a man identified in court documents only as a “Russian official” but who is widely understood to be Torshin, a former Russian elected official from Putin’s United Russia party. Torshin, The Daily Beast reported Tuesday, met in August 2015 with pro-Russia GOP congressman Dana Rohrabacher, someone to whom the affidavit alludes but did not name.
Only now, federal prosecutors allege that Butina has substantial ties to Russian intelligence as well, deepening the intrigue around the young Russian widely seen around D.C. – and the potential legal liability for her numerous American contacts in the NRA and GOP politics.
In an October 2016 exchange with the official believed to be Torshin, Butina assessed the downsides of public exposure over a “Russian-U.S. friendship society.” Butina said that “private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend,” according to prosecutors. The Russian official replied: “[Y]ou probably shouldn’t be going as an observer from Russia. The risk of provocation is too high and the ‘media hype’ which comes after it.”
Butina allegedly replied: “Only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”
Conspicuously for someone with alleged ties to the FSB, however, Butina communicated with the Russian official over highly interceptable forums, such as Twitter direct messages.
As well, prosecutors said Butina’s chats, Twitter messages and emails show her to be in contact with a “known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.”
The document describes him as worth $1.2 billion in 2018, according to Forbes magazine. Forbes’ 2018 billionaires list includes 11 male Russian nationals worth an estimated $1.2 billion: Gleb Fetisov, Sergei Kolesnikov, Ziyavudin Magomedov, Andrei Molchanov, Boris Rotenberg, Igor Rybakov, Airat Shaimiev, Radik Shaimiev, Mikhail Shelkov, Leonid Simanovsky, and Vadim Yakunin. Forbes has described Sergey Chemezov, the former boss of Mikhail Shelkov, previously the investment chief of the Russian state corporation Rostec, as “a member of Putin's inner circle, befriending Russia's president in Germany in the 1980s.” Another of the $1.2 billion Forbes members, Boris Rotenberg, is described as a close friend and old judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps most salaciously, prosecutors alleged for the first time that Butina and a man believed to be GOP political operative Paul Erickson – listed in court filings this week as “U.S. Person 1” – were intimately involved.
Through U.S. Person 1, Butina obtained what prosecutors call “an extensive network” of right-wing political figures. In Monday’s affidavit, the FBI claimed the person believed to be Erickson boasted: “NO one – certainly not the ‘official’ Russian Federation public relations representative in New York – could build a better list.”
But on Wednesday, prosecutors alleged what was in it for U.S. Person 1: “Butina, age 29, and U.S. Person 1, age 56, are believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship during the course of Butina’s activities in the United States.”
Embarrassingly for that person, prosecutors charged that Butina viewed their relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” On another occasion, Butina allegedly offered a different person “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization." And in papers prosecutors say they obtained, Butina allegedly “expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”
-- Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting