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Who is Maria Butina, the gun activist charged with spying for Russia?

Russian parliamentarian reacts to the arrest of Maria Butina, accused of being a Russian agent
Russian parliamentarian reacts to the arrest of Maria Butina, accused of being a Russian agent

Maria Butina, the 29-year-old Russian national charged with spying in the United States, has strong ties to a sanctioned Russian oligarch and a long history of promoting gun rights in Russia and the U.S.

Butina is accused of using her contacts with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to establish ties between the Kremlin and an unnamed U.S. political party, which court documents suggest is the Republican Party. Butina allegedly tried to set up the back channel ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

READ MORE: Russian woman living in U.S. arrested, charged with being a foreign agent

Here’s what we know about Butina.

Personal life and gun advocacy

 

Maria Butina, who is accused of spying for Russia, appears in this modelling image from Oct. 23, 2014.
Maria Butina, who is accused of spying for Russia, appears in this modelling image from Oct. 23, 2014. Maria Butina/Facebook

Butina was born in Barnaul, in southern Siberia, in 1988. She attended the local Altai State University from 2005-2010, and earned master’s degrees in political science and social science teacher education, according to her LinkedIn page.

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Butina moved to Moscow sometime after 2010 to launch Right to Bear Arms, a pro-gun lobby modelled after the NRA. She quickly became an outspoken champion for the cause, appearing on television, in magazines and speaking to Russian Parliament on several occasions about guns.

She has also modelled in several photo shoots to promote gun rights, including Russian GQ.

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U.S. candidate for Congress talks about interaction with Russian agent Maria Butina
U.S. candidate for Congress talks about interaction with Russian agent Maria Butina

Butina started spending time in the U.S. in 2015, attending gun shows and engaging with members of the NRA, according to documents filed in court on Monday.

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She has been pursuing a master’s degree in international relations and affairs since 2016, at American University in Washington, D.C., according to her LinkedIn page.

Charged with spying

Butina was charged on Monday with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government, in connection with alleged activities dating back to at least 2015.

The charges relate to her work as the founder of Right to Bear Arms.

Butina allegedly arranged dinners in Washington and New York City and tried to develop relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus,” the Justice Department said in its complaint filed on Monday.

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In a statement, Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations “overblown” and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities. Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the U.S. on a student visa for her studies at American University. He added that the FBI already raided her home in April, and that she has co-operated with investigators.

“Ms. Butina intends to defend her rights vigorously and looks forward to clearing her name,” Driscoll said.

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Butina was indicted as part of a state investigation in Washington, D.C., and not as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference.

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Ties to a sanctioned Russian oligarch

Maria Butina is shown with Alexander Torshin, a Russian oligarch, in this June 6, 2015, image.
Maria Butina is shown with Alexander Torshin, a Russian oligarch, in this June 6, 2015, image. Maria Butina/Facebook

Butina has spent years working for Alexander Torshin, a Russian oligarch who was among those sanctioned in April for Russian meddling in the election.

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Torshin is the deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank, a former Russian senator and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. froze all of his assets under its jurisdiction in April, and banned all Americans and American businesses from associating with him.

Torshin became a life member of the NRA in 2012.

Archived versions of Butina’s former personal website describe her as an assistant to Torshin throughout 2016.

Butina’s LinkedIn page says she worked for Torshin as an “unpaid special assistant” from 2011 until May 2017. She has also appeared in various news reports over the years as Torshin’s right-hand woman on gun rights.

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Prosecutors say Butina, at a Russian official’s direction, met with U.S. politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups — including two National Prayer Breakfast events — and organized Russian-American “friendship and dialogue” dinners in Washington as part of her work.

The charging documents include several emails and Twitter direct message conversations in which Butina refers to the need to keep her work secret or, in one case, “incognito.”

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The description of the Russian official filed in court matches Torshin.

Butina and Torshin frequently appear together in photos posted on her social media pages from 2015 until 2017. Many of the photos show Butina holding a bouquet of flowers.

Links to Republicans via the NRA

Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to reports in The New York Times, Time and the Daily Beast. Among those who attended were former NRA president David Keene, conservative political operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.

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Butina and Torshin were photographed together with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Apr. 24, 2015, ahead of Walker’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, centre, is shown with Russian oligarch Alexander Torshin, left, and Maria Butina in this photo posted on Butina’s Facebook page on April 24, 2015.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, centre, is shown with Russian oligarch Alexander Torshin, left, and Maria Butina in this photo posted on Butina’s Facebook page on April 24, 2015. Maria Butina/Facebook

A social media post on Butina’s account from 2014 shows her meeting with then-NRA president Jim Porter.

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The court filing against Butina alleges she established contact with an unnamed American political operative in Moscow who helped arrange meetings with influential figures in the U.S.

The New York Times reported last November that Butina and Torshin tried to arrange a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016. The meeting ultimately did not occur.

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Butina was jailed on Monday until her next court appearance, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press