Earlier this year the news broke that federal authorities were looking into whether Russian donations to the National Rifle Association (NRA) helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Now, a pro-gun activist with ties to the NRA has been charged with acting as an agent of Russia in in an indictment made public Monday. Russian graduate student and activist Maria Butina, who's involved with the NRA-supported Russian group "Right To Bear Arms," was taken into custody on Sunday, according to CNN.
FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson alleged in a sworn affidavit that one of Butina's objectives was to "exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation."
The 29-year-old was once an assistant for the Russian senator Aleksander Torshin, who is a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a statement, The Justice Department accused Butina of working "at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government who was previously a member of the legislature of the Russian Federation and later became a top official at the Russian Central Bank" between 2015 and 2017. It added that the official, who wasn't identified, had been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in April.
Federal authorities accused Butina, whose actual name is Mariia, of connecting with political operatives in Moscow in 2013. They allege she did so to establish some kind of backchannel between operatives in the United States and Russia in order to push Russian interests forward. In his sworn statement, Helson said, "I believe that Butina and the Russian official took these steps in order to infiltrate those groups and advance the interests of the Russian Federation."
The development comes after McClatchy published an investigative report in January that linked Russian donations to the NRA. At the heart of the matter was Torshin, Butina's former boss, whose close ties with the gun rights organization became an increasingly important subject for federal authorities.
On her LinkedIn profile, Butina describes herself as a student at American University’s Kogod School of Business, where "the chief focus of Butina’s master’s degree in International Service is a concentration in cyber policy, the 'internet of things,' cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology."
To some, Butina's LinkedIn profile may read like an impressive resume. "[Butina] has lectured in a dozen countries around the world and been in and out of active conflict regions," the bio page of her profile reads. "She studied global energy markets and other international trade issues. Maria was a small business owner (a chain of furniture stores) when she was still an undergraduate in Siberia, Russia."
On the subject of gun rights, she wrote, "Butina founded a gun rights organization in Russia that grew to over 10,000 members. She has spent five years on national television, radio and in print as a spokeswoman for the organization."
It's hard to pinpoint what will happen to Bustina now. Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, denies the accusation that she worked in the United States to further Russian political interests. "The substance of the charge in the complaint is overblown," he said in a statement to NPR. "While styled as some sort of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, in actuality it describes a conspiracy to have a 'friendship dinner' at Bistro Bis with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries."
"There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law in the United States," Driscoll added in the statement.