Maria Butina, Russian spy, goes to jail. FSB Torshin, Don Jr., & Jack Abramoff investigated.

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Happy Saturday~

I wanted to get a little more background on the Butina affair, so decided to write it down. Maybe some of you will find it helpful. I’ll be out today and won’t check in much, but will later this afternoon. 

1. Maria Butina, willing pawn to create a bridge from Russia to the GOP/NRA. 

The Russian spy who pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison today. 

She was arrested over the summer after having been monitored by the FBI, including in meetings in Washington, D.C., with Russian officials. Butina also had materials that suggested she was in contact with Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, prosecutors said.

 (Her attorneys’ sentencing memo).

Sometime in her young life, Butina became “friends” with Alexander Torshin, who it turns out, was Butina’s boss. Torshin is a former deputy minister of Russian state bank who was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department Foreign Assets Control, a former member of Russian parliament, has connections to Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, is an active member of the Russian mafia, wanted for money laundering in Spain, and investigated by Mueller for money laundering to the GOP through the NRA.

Daily Beast, 2017:

Torshin’s assets have skyrocketed over the last few years, according to Transparency International, a watchdog organization that tracks the net worth of Russian officials.

“One of Torshin’s superiors at the bank between 1995 and 1998, former First Deputy Governor Sergey Aleksashenko, said Torshin may have returned to his old post at the behest of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, with which he appears to have longstanding ties,” Bloomberg reported. “Aleksashenko, a former head of Merrill Lynch in Moscow, is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.”

(In the government’s sentencing memo:)

The government asserts that Butina “acted at the direction and control” of a “Russian Official,” previously identified as Alexander Torshin. Butina, the memo states, was “fully aware that he reported to the rest of the Russian government and her actions were ultimately for the benefit of the foreign government.” According to the memo, Butina even “voiced worry that others in the Russian government would steal the initiative” to establish a backchannel out from under her.

Link

Under Torshin’s guidance (see #2 below), Butina became a member of the NRA and started an NRA clone in Moscow in 2011 called, “Right to Bear Arms,” that organized protests and advocated “personal safety.” Says she did not ‘infiltrate’ the NRA, but ‘joined it’ because it was “a good connection to have” for her guns rights group.

Torshin and Butina held a “Right to Bear Arms” conference in Moscow in 2013, and invited many Republicans and NRA ‘dignitaries.’ That is where she met her GOP operative boyfriend (cover?) Paul Erickson, who was eventually indicted for money laundering and defrauding investors in February 2019. They started “Bridges, LLC” together. Cute—Kremlin-connected operators building bridges to the GOP.

Erickson then took her to the annual NRA meeting in 2014 hosted by then NRA President David Keene.

2014 Townhall interview:

(Katie Pavlich, Townhall Editor, far-right activist, and useful idiot)

During the NRA Annual Meetings in Indianapolis two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the founder and president of The Right to Bear Arms, a pro-gun rights organization in Russia. After finally being approved for a visa just days before the meetings started, Maria Butina attended the annual NRA Women’s Leadership Luncheon as a guest of former NRA President Sandy Froman and participated in general meetings over the weekend as a guest of former NRA President David Keene. I had to opportunity to sit down with Maria to talk about why she was there and to discuss her goals for the gun rights movement in Russia. She’s working on everything from castle doctrine, gun safety programs for kids and shifting public opinion in a pro-gun direction….

…MB: My organization is all Russian, public organization. It’s called The Right to Bear Arms.KP: What are you doing here at the NRA convention in America?MB: We are friends with many, many organizations all over the world. We protect gun rights in Russia, and people who are gun owners and in a situation of self-defense. And we would like to know world experience, and it means that NRA, one of the most world famous and most important organizations and it means that we would like to be friends with NRA. And we invited them to our annual meeting, the third annual meeting in our life. We are a young organization. We are three years old. And we invited David Keene. He made a speech at our annual meeting. And so it’s like an answer from one side. The next side is the life member of our organization. He is our Russian senator. His name is Senator Alexander Torshin. He is a life member of NRA too, and he’s usually a participant of such events, and every annual meeting of NRA. But now the situation between (our) two countries is very difficult. And we have to go here together with Senator Torshin. He is a great gun lover, he supports our organization and he’s a friend of the NRA. 

(The situation between Russia and the US was, indeed, ‘difficult.’ “After the takeover of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russian banks and Putin’s inner circle.”)

Butina laid out her plans in a document called “Description of the Diplomacy Project,” according to court documents; she wrote that she believed Russia could not reinvigorate ties with the United States through official institutions.

Instead, she argued, Moscow should expand its “unofficial channels of communication,” of which she could be one.

The course she chose was via gun rights, building off Butina’s history of shooting and gun ownership inside of Russia. So Butina, Erickson and Torshin sought to strengthen their relationships with the politically powerful NRA.

Keene and Erickson are old friends: (see #2 below)

Keene and Erickson have a long history together dating back to the 1990s when they were registered foreign agents lobbying, in collaboration with Jack Abramoff, for a well-known “dictator” to gain entry into the United States.

In December of 2015, Butina went back to Russia, planned a gala for her ‘gun group’, and invited a large NRA/US contingency to Moscow through Keene. It was an extravagant affair that included tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet, fine dining, and gun ranges in order to “give the appearance of greater legitimacy for her group.” 

After the visit, Butina wrote to Torshin that “we should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later,” prosecutors wrote in the court papers.

It isn’t clear whether “pressure” actually might have been applied to the NRA, by whom or to what end, but its role in Russia’s “active measures” has been the focus of scrutiny by members of Congress.

Butina somehow got into grad school at George Washington University in D.C. and started in 2016. She and Erickson decided to expand their circle of influence:

In a February 2017 email, the operative, Paul Erickson, proposed another “U.S./Russia friendship” dinner. He noted that the activist, Maria Butina, who now is accused of being a covert Russian agent, was making an “ever-expanding circle of influential friends.”

Ms. Butina, he wrote in the email, had just met Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, during a visit to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The Russian woman had also gotten to know the ex-wife of a supermarket heir, who had endowed an institute dedicated to furthering American-Russian relations, and the “silky smooth” former Russian diplomat who ran it.

Then there was the recipient of the email, George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller relative and conservative writer. He was helping pay Ms. Butina’s bills, said a person familiar with their relationship, and hoped to make her the centerpiece of his own project to improve America’s ties to Russia.

They worked to create a back-channel from Trump to Putin, via former Attorney General Jeff Sessions:

Erickson, for example, sent an email to the office of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, working as a Trump campaign booster, offering to use his NRA connections to establish a back channel between the Trumps and the Russian government.

He wrote this:

“I’m now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts / advisors. […] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin‘s Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”

NYT article on those attempts to create a back-channel to relieve Russian sanctions and pressure the GOP to do other things:

A May 2016 email to the campaign adviser, Rick Dearborn, bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, the N.R.A. member said he wanted the advice of Mr. Dearborn and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, then a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump and Mr. Dearborn’s longtime boss, about how to proceed in connecting the two leaders.

Russia, he wrote, was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would attempt to use the N.R.A.’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky., to make “ ‘first contact.’ ” The email, which was among a trove of campaign-related documents turned over to investigators on Capitol Hill, was described in detail to The New York Times.

Although Torshin later met Donald Trump Jr. at an event during an NRA convention, Butina and her colleagues were not able to broker a conference between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The work ran through Election Day 2016 and into the following year, when Torshin instructed Butina about which Russian attendees to arrange to become part of a delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2, 2017.

Later, Erickson said in an email message on which Butina was cc’d:

“Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY [emphasis in original] to the Russian President and Foreign Minister.”

–The Daily Beast on the back-channel.

She was arrested on July 16, 2018, and pled guilty on Dec. 10, 2018. She sang like a canary about her ‘lover’ Erickson’s crimes, but said in her sentencing brief that her “motivations weren’t nefarious. (Intent is everything in criminal law). “Maria was genuinely interested in improving relations between the two countries, and she had no ill intent. Additionally, if Torshin happened to share any of her unsolicited notes or political thoughts up the chain, she didn’t know, although she would welcome any recognition all the same. She was driven to find a career. Graduation was inevitable, and her ambition clouded her good judgment. So she carelessly continued to help Torshin while in the US, albeit not under orders or for money.” 

2. Putin put Torshin to work in 2009 using active measures. 

–Alexander Torshin, FSB agent, began courting the GOP since at least 2009.

Kremlin-linked Russian politician Alexander Torshin traveled frequently between Moscow and various destinations in the United States to build relationships with figures on the American right starting as early as 2009, beyond his previously known contacts with the National Rifle Association.

Documents newly obtained by NPR show how he traveled throughout the United States to cultivate ties in ways well beyond his formal role as a member of the Russian legislature and later as a top official at the Russian central bank. These are steps a former top CIA official believes Torshin took in order to advance Moscow’s long-term objectives in the United States, in part by establishing common political interests with American conservatives.

“[Vladimir] Putin and probably the Russian intelligence services saw [Torshin’s connections] as something that they could leverage in the United States,” said Steve Hall, a retired CIA chief of Russian operations. “They reach out to a guy like Torshin and say, ‘Hey, can you make contact with the NRA and some other conservatives … so that we can have connectivity from Moscow into those conservative parts of American politics should we need them?’ And that’s basically just wiring the United States for sound, if you will, in preparation for whatever they might need down the road.”

Torshin, began planning a Russia/NRA “bridge” in 2011. 

A conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV who has done business in Russia claims that he first introduced David Keene to Torshin in 2011 while Keene was NRA president. 

Keene and Torshin quickly forged an alliance based on mutual interests. 

“Just a brief note to let you know just how much I enjoyed meeting in Pittsburgh during the NRA annual meeting,” Keene wrote in a 2011 letter later obtained by anti-corruption activists in Russia that extended a personal invitation to the NRA’s conference the following year. 

Keene added, “If there is anything any of us can do to help you in your endeavors . . . please don’t hesitate to let us know.”

“We will start organizing our own Russian NRA,” Torshin tweeted shortly thereafter.

In 2011, Maria Butina became founding chair of a new Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms.

By 2013, Keene was introduced as an honored guest at the Right to Bear Arms conference in Moscow. “There are no peoples that are more alike than Americans and Russians,” Keene said. “We’re hunters. We’re shooters. We value the same kinds of things… we need to work together.”

An aside: David Keene, mentioned above, was a lobbyist with Erickson and Jack Abramoff. He is now a registered foreign agent for the government of Algeria. 

And, this:

Erickson and Abramoff had been longtime friends whose professional lives often intertwined. After college Republicans, Erickson and Abramoff went on to do more than just develop the anti-Communist Dolph Lundgren flick Red Scorpion together.

In 1995, Erickson obtained a $30,000 contract for a six-week stint lobbying for entrance into the United States on behalf of Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of the Republic of Congo during the Rwandan genocide who was widely referenced as a military dictator. Mobutu had been banned from the entering the United States after he developed political ties while working as a journalist then formed an authoritarian regime. He was notorious for corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement between $4 and $15 billion during his reign as well as widespread human rights violations.

As Abramoff noted in the FARA disclosures, he was “under no illusion we are dealing with Thomas Jefferson.”….

….

Abramoff has again been implicated in Erickson’s schemes related to Butina, though the full extent and scope of Abramoff’s role is unclear.

Anti-fraud investigators at Wells Fargo bank, acting on a tip from federal investigators, flagged potentially suspicious bank transfers from an account held jointly by Butina and Erickson to what appeared to be a shell company tied to Abramoff’s family. Erickson sent wire transfers for $15,000 to a California company incorporated in March 2017 out of the home of Abramoff’s son who is listed as its CEO and sole director while Abramoff’s brother is the registered agent.

–From this angle, the NRA looks to be in bed with Russia as a fundraising arm for GOP candidates who broker Russian interests in exchange for cash. (Open Secrets) 

Senate intelligence and finance committees have reportedly requested documents on the NRA’s connections to Russia, including documents related to whether the NRA took Russian money and the 2015 delegation. After spending a record $54.4 million to put President Donald Trump in the White House and support Republicans in Congress, the NRA’s membership dues dropped precipitously the following year.

Although the NRA’s lawyers initially denied the Russian money, they eventually admitted to receiving “a total of approximately $2,512.85 from people associated Russian addresses” and “about $525” from two Russian nationals living in the United States in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The NRA also acknowledged “membership dues” from Torshin, who has been a non-voting life member of the NRA since 2012 — the year after he first connected with Keene.

Tangled webs down the rabbit hole. Peace out.

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