The American public has continued to know little about Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty in December to participating in a foreign conspiracy against the United States. Not much has emerged about the confessed Russian agent’s political activities beyond her efforts to build ties with Republican leaders and top officials of the National Rifle Association. But Butina wasn’t just a fan of gun rights who attended American University, romanced a veteran Republican operative, and pitched US-Russian collaboration at NRA conventions.
Mother Jones has uncovered a trail of activity showing that during the same period when top NRA leaders welcomed Butina into the fold—meeting with her extensively in Moscow and the United States—Butina actively supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military takeover of Crimea. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion and annexation in March 2014, Butina denounced retaliatory sanctions by the Obama administration and traveled to Crimea to promote the arming of pro-Russian separatists. Her efforts there included pledging support to a leader of a militia group that violently seized a Crimean news outlet it deemed “pro-American” and swiftly repurposed for a Kremlin propaganda operation.
As multiple congressional probes of NRA ties with Russia intensify, the NRA now says it had no official connection to a trip NRA leaders took to Moscow to meet with Butina’s gun group and Kremlin officials—a claim Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who is leading one of the probes, calls “not credible.” Butina’s role in Crimea raises additional questions about why the NRA—known historically for its hawkish “freedom loving” image—spent years getting close with a Russian national who was doing work hostile to US national security interests.
By late 2013, NRA leaders had already forged ties with Butina’s boss, Alexander Torshin, a high-level official from Putin’s party who was hosted by NRA board member and past president David Keene at NRA annual conventions. (Torshin was sanctioned by the US government last April and described as an unidentified co-conspirator in Butina’s indictment.) In November 2013, Keene traveled to Moscow, where he gave a speech to Butina’s fledgling group, the Right to Bear Arms, offering to “work together” to advance common interests. Also at that time, future Trump national security adviser John Bolton, then a member of the NRA’s international affairs subcommittee, recorded a video address to the Russians talking up gun rights, which Butina used to lobby the Russian legislature.
Butina had been cultivating partnerships with gun rights groups internationally—but four months later, she mobilized to expand her group into Crimea in a starkly different context. On March 17, 2014, after Putin sent in troops and used an illegal referendum to declare Crimea part of the Russian Federation, President Barack Obama announced sanctions in response, including against entities operating in the Russian arms sector. That same day, Butina posted a lengthy commentary online warning that the Obama sanctions would “bankrupt the Russian arms industry,” calling them “a direct threat to national security.” She soon announced plans to travel to Crimea the following week, to establish offices for her group there and advise local citizens on arming themselves under Russian law. Butina stated in the local press that “security problems” in Crimea would persist, and that there was a need to develop civilian “self-defense units” to help uphold the new Russian order.
On the weekend of March 25, 2014, Butina held a press conference in Crimea with Sergei Veselovsky, a leader of a pro-Russian separatist group called the Crimean Front. During their talk, Butina touted her connections with Kremlin officials and mentioned a civilian gun initiative by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin—at the time freshly sanctioned by the United States, and who would be among those greeting NRA leaders during Butina’s conference in Moscow the following year. Butina spoke of her gun group’s plans to expand into Crimea, and Veselovsky asked about arming local citizens in response to news of Ukrainian militants heading for the region. “The enemy is cunning,” he noted, and “does not rest.” Butina responded that Russian law was now “especially relevant” for arming locals: “And on our end, we will try to help maximally, of course, on the legal front. We’ll tell people how to do it absolutely right, and how to behave in a self-defense scenario.”
The Crimean Front was involved in more than self-defense. When Putin’s annexation began, Veselovsky had led a “Cossack self-defense unit” to storm the offices of the independent Crimean Center for Investigative Journalism. As seen in video posted on that March 1 by other local media, the group of about two dozen men clad in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas marched in formation to the building and demanded entry. Two of the masked men then hurled a concrete block through a front window and the group forced its way inside.
The journalists fled to Kiev, as the militia group denounced the influence of “American agents” and recast the outlet as “News Front.” Reportedly funded by the Russian security services and since run by an editor who helped seize the offices, the outlet publishes stories attacking US sanctions and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, among other anti-American content. Since Donald Trump became president, News Front has also touted ties with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-linked lawyer who attended the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and was recently indicted. After news emerged that top Trump campaign officials sought to acquire “dirt” on Hillary Clinton at that meeting, News Front provided “exclusive” documents to the American press purportedly showing Veselnitskaya had no such material.
Butina held her March 2014 press conference with the Crimean Front at their newly seized media headquarters. Four weeks later, she traveled to Indianapolis for the NRA annual convention, where NRA executives welcomed her as a VIP. Continue: We uncovered an even darker side to the NRA’s relationship with Russian agent Maria Butina