Maria Butina, the founder of the Russian equivalent of the National Rifle Association and a key ally of Vladimir Putin’s central bank deputy governor Alexander Torshin, was indicted on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and for failure to registered as a foreign agent. According to the Department of Justice’s application for criminal complaint, Butina worked to “arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics, including an organization promoting gun rights” and to “infiltrate those groups” to advance the Russian Federation’s agenda.
Nearly two years ago, ThinkProgress first reported on Butina and her group’s mysterious connections with the National Rifle Association and the 2016 elections. Experts at the time suggested that her connections with the Trump campaign and the gun-rights movement could be cover for a larger effort to undermine American sanctions against Russia. Among the connections noted were that Butina had somehow been able to ask Trump a question about trade with Russia at a Las Vegas campaign event and that her organization had helped pay to bring Trump surrogate and then-Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke to Moscow.
The arrangement caught the attention of federal prosecutors and Senate Democrats investigating the Putin regime’s meddling in the 2016 elections. The alleged ties were widely dismissed and mocked by conservatives.
At the time, ThinkProgress reached out to Butina to ask her about her organization. In a November 17, 2016 email, we posed some questions:
1) Why did you join the NRA, given that you don’t live in the USA?
2) Why did you start The Right to Bear Arms and why is it important?
3) Does Alexander Torshin have a formal role with the organization?
4) Do you still work with him at the Bank of Russia, and if so what is your title?
5) I see that you spoke with President-Elect Trump on the campaign trail about Russian sanctions. Have you communicated with the NRA leadership or other American politicians about lifting sanctions on Russian guns or anything else?
6) Does the Right to Bear Arms receive any money from the NRA? Does the NRA receive any money from the Right to Bear Arms or its supporters?
7) Some media reports have identified you as a supporter of Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Is this accurate?
8) Why did your organization help pay to host Sheriff David Clarke in Moscow? Have you brought any other American politicians?
Two days later, Butina sent a terse reply that now seems to contradict what the federal government alleges.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she began, “but there is no international conspiracy at work surrounding the organization I founded, ‘The Right to Bear Arms.’”
Butina said she founded her organization in the Russian Federation “because I – and thousands of my fellow Russians – believe that Russians should be able to defend themselves and their families when the police cannot.”
“The Right to Bear Arms and your American NRA are completely separate organizations. We have no political or financial ties of any kind. Though we are literally ‘comrades in arms’ in a shared belief that a right to own a firearm makes people safer,” she continued. “I have never met President-Elect Trump, though I did get to ask him a question from the audience in a very large forum in the early days of his campaign.”
Butina then angrily reacted to an apparent misreading of the question about Clarke’s Moscow trip (“Have you brought any other American politicians?”), objecting to the suggestion that she had “bought” any American politicians.
And I deeply resent your slander against Sheriff Clarke as a “bought” politician. My organization helped pay part of the expenses of a visiting NRA delegation to my native Russia, something any decent host would do when friends visit. From reading your American press, it appears that the only politicians that have received large sums of money from foreign governments or organizations in exchange for influence were Bill and Hillary Clinton. But in their wisdom, the American people put an end to that.
Butina did not respond to an email clarifying the question.
We now know that in October, Butina and Torshin had allegedly helped build a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin” and Republican party leaders, apparently using the NRA as a “conduit.”
Just days after Butina’s claims to ThinkProgress that there was “no international conspiracy at work,” according to an email obtained by the Department of Justice, Butina wrote that “VERY influential” people in Russia were “coming to establish a back channel of communication.”