She was like a novelty’: How alleged Russian agent Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles
Who is Maria Butina?
Maria Butina, 29, founded a Russian group called the Right to Bear Arms. On July 16 she was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)
July 17 at 8:45 PM
For nearly five years, the young Russian political-science student was an unusual fixture at the most important events of the U.S. conservative movement.
Maria Butina, who was indicted this week on charges of being a covert Russian agent, struck up friendships with the influential leaders of the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference, touting her interest in U.S. affairs and efforts to promote gun rights in Vladimir Putin’s restrictive Russia. She sidled up to GOP presidential candidates, seeking first an encounter with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then, after his rising candidacy stumbled, with Donald Trump.
But by August 2016, when she moved to the United States on a student visa, the FBI was watching, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Rather than question or confront her, they said, officials decided to track her movements to determine whom she was meeting and what she was doing in the United States — the kind of monitoring that is not uncommon when foreign nationals are suspected of working on behalf of a foreign government.
By then, Butina had already publicly quizzed Trump about his views on Russia and briefly met his eldest son at an NRA convention. After the FBI began monitoring her, Butina attended a ball at Trump’s inauguration and tried to arrange a meeting between him and a senior Russian government official at last year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast.
By 2017, after she had enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, Butina began probing groups on the left as well, trying unsuccessfully to interview a D.C.-based civil rights group about its cyber-vulnerabilities for what she said was a school project, according to a person familiar with her outreach.
On Sunday, alerted that she was preparing to leave Washington for South Dakota, where monitoring her would be more difficult, federal authorities arrested Butina.
The 29-year-old was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday, accused of conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent. The indictment alleges that she worked with her contact in the Russian government to infiltrate American political groups as part of a scheme “to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, said she is not a Russian agent but merely a student with an interest in politics and a desire to network with Americans. “She intends to defend her rights vigorously and looks forward to clearing her name,” he said in a statement.
U.S. officials allege that her activities show the breadth and sophistication of Russia’s influence operations in the United States. At the same time prosecutors say 12 Russian intelligence officers in Moscow sought to affect the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking and releasing stolen documents from Democrats, Butina was roaming the country, building ties on the Kremlin’s behalf with powerful conservative figures, according to court filings.
“The filing of this latest complaint is just further evidence of how far-reaching and carefully planned Russia’s assault on American democracy has been,” said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the Russia investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe. “To anyone who doubts that the Russian counterintelligence threat is real, this complaint should be further proof that it’s a threat that is live, real and urgent for the country to grapple with.”
Butina’s activities raise questions about why the NRA and other groups gave her high-level access, allowing her to meet important politicians and influential thought leaders.
NRA officials did not respond to requests for comment.
People who encountered Butina said the gregarious redhead had a life story that appealed to many activists and officials she met at GOP events. She told a conservative radio show in 2015 that she grew up in the woods of Siberia, where her father taught her and her sister to hunt bears and wolves.
After a brief career as the owner of a small chain of furniture stores, Butina moved to Moscow, where she began a career in public relations and founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms to advocate for the loosening of Russia’s restrictive gun laws.
Soon, her group acquired a powerful patron, a Russian senator from Putin’s party who later became the deputy director of Russia’s central bank: Alexander Torshin, a lifetime member of the NRA who had ties with Christian conservatives through an annual prayer breakfast he helped host in Moscow.
Acting as Torshin’s assistant and interpreter, Butina soon began forming her own connections to the NRA, becoming friendly with David Keene, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who served as the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013, as The Washington Post previously reported.
In 2013, Butina and Torshin invited Keene and other American gun enthusiasts to Moscow to attend the annual meeting of her organization.
There, Butina met Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based Republican operative who was well known to Republican insiders, going back to the work he did as national political director for Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in 1992. She told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she began a romantic relationship with the American operative, people familiar with her testimony said.
Erickson matches a description of an American described in court filings as a political operative who helped introduce Butina to influential American political figures “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Erickson, who has not been charged, did not respond to requests for comment.
Starting in 2014, Butina began attending annual NRA conventions, according to her social media accounts. She and Torshin got unusual access to elite NRA gatherings, according to a person familiar with NRA event arrangements. In recent years, they were regular guests at Golden Ring of Freedom dinners and VIP events reserved for people who typically donate $1 million to the NRA.
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee that neither she nor Torshin made contributions to the NRA other than membership dues, according to people familiar with her testimony. Their warm treatment was extended merely to thank them for serving as hosts to NRA leaders in Moscow, she said.
The NRA, which spent millions more to support Trump than any previous presidential candidate, has denied accepting funding from Butina or Torshin. In an April letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an NRA official said that other than membership dues, Torshin “has not made any contributions and is therefore not a member of any major donor program.”
The NRA gave Butina a springboard into the world of Republican politics. In March 2015, court documents show that she and Erickson exchanged emails about a special “diplomacy” project, aiming to use the organization to influence the Republican Party, which Butina predicted would win control of the White House.
At the group’s annual convention in Nashville that year, which featured a dozen presidential hopefuls, they mingled with headliners in a VIP green room, according to a person who was present.
In a social media post, Butina wrote that she met Walker and was surprised when she was able to exchange a few words in Russian with the Wisconsin governor, who was preparing a bid for the presidency and leading in polls. A Walker spokesman said Tuesday that there were thousands of people at the convention and that “many of them approached the governor and asked to say hello and take a photo with him.”
Later in 2015, she attended Walker’s kickoff political rally in Wisconsin and a town hall for candidates in Las Vegas, where candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Trump were speaking. She also helped arrange a meeting for Torshin in St. Petersburg with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who was visiting with a congressional delegation on a trip cited in court filings.
Butina had access to VIP areas at political events such as CPAC, giving her access to organization leaders and top staff, according to people who saw her there.
“Hello, I am Russian,” one veteran CPAC attendee recalled she told him as she introduced herself, quickly asking questions in accented but otherwise excellent English: “What do you do? Who do you back for president?”
The CPAC veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, recalled her as “friendly, curious and flirtatious.”
She often raised the issue of gun rights before asking to exchange business cards and to stay in touch on social media, according to people who met her.
“She was like a novelty,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who met Butina at a handful of conservative events in 2016. “She ran a gun rights group in Russia and, by definition, with the kind of repression under Putin, your assumption was that was kind of a revolutionary, radical thing.”
In a 2017 email to The Washington Post, Butina argued that her group was “not very popular” with Russian officials. She said she received no funding from the Russian government. “No government official has EVER approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans,” she wrote.
Igor Shmelyov, the chairman of the Russian group Butina founded, said her arrest came as a “great shock.”
“Maria is interested in guns, so of course her social circle is connected to this,” he said, adding that she interacted with supporters of the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation because of that personal interest. “To say that all this means she was lobbying for Russian interests is rather ridiculous.”
But according to the FBI, she spoke frequently with a “high-level official in the Russian government” about her efforts to broker better ties between Russia and the United States. The description matches Torshin, who was among 17 senior Russian government officials penalized by the U.S. government in April for playing a role in advancing Russia’s “malign activities.” In March 2016, she emailed an American contact that Putin’s administration had expressed approval for her and Torshin’s efforts to build a “communication channel” in the U.S., according to court filings.
“Maria Butina is currently in the USA. She writes me that D. Trump (an NRA member) is truly in favor of cooperation with Russia,” Torshin tweeted in Russian in February 2016.
The following month, she emailed an American contact that Torshin had received approval from Putin’s administration for their efforts, according to court filings.
On the night of Trump’s election victory, the filings say, she messaged Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.”
Erickson lobbied for a role in Trump’s transition team and complained after the election when he ran into a problem with his security clearance, according to people familiar with the situation.
Even without official credentials, he pressed Trump donors and former campaign officials, pushing for top positions for people he thought especially qualified. One person recalled his lobbying to get K.T. McFarland named as an adviser to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
As scrutiny grew of Russian actions during the campaign, Butina’s work in her role as a graduate student at American University attracted notice as well. She sparked alarm at one Washington-area civil rights group in June 2017, when she asked to interview the group’s director about its vulnerability to cyberattacks for a school project.
“It was incredibly suspect activity,” said Jon Steinman, co-founder of HillCyber, a cybersecurity firm that consulted with the group. Steinman said he immediately contacted the FBI and was interviewed about the episode at length in January.
Driscoll, Butina’s attorney, said the inquiry was not surprising given that she was enrolled in a cybersecurity program. An American University spokesman confirmed that Butina graduated with a master’s degree in May but otherwise declined to comment.
With her degree in hand, Butina prepared to leave Washington for South Dakota this weekend. Then the FBI moved in.
at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and made contacts vital to stealing scientific secrets. Or since 1958, when KGB officer Oleg Kalugin entered Columbia’s journalism school. After graduation, posing as a Radio Moscow correspondent at the United Nations, Kalugin attended events at Columbia and reported back on them to Moscow. His report on a speech about U.S.-Soviet relations by Zbigniew Brzezinski, then a Columbia professor and later national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, earned kudos from the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
After that, “I went all across the country, from Harvard to Columbia and the West Coast, listening to what people said and reporting it if I thought it was interesting,” Kalugin told me. He rose to head the KGB’s foreign counterintelligence branch before falling out of favor in Russia, moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming an American citizen.
Sometimes, Russian agents join the academic community as students or instructors. Of Guryeva and the other nine “illegals” — sleeper agents without diplomatic cover — who pleaded guilty in 2010 to conspiring to act as foreign agents and were swapped back to Russia, seven went to U.S. universities, including Harvard, The New School, and the University of Washington. One taught politics for a semester at Baruch College, lambasting American foreign policy.
In other cases, agents hold diplomatic posts at an embassy or consulate and forage in nearby campuses for recruits and information. It’s easier, cheaper and less conspicuous for Russian intelligence to enlist a student or professor who can be steered to a federal agency than to lure someone already in a sensitive government position. Exploiting open campuses, spies slip unnoticed into lectures, seminars and cafeterias, where they befriend the computer scientist or Pentagon adviser sitting beside them.
Butina enrolled in American University’s School of International Service in the summer of 2016, university spokesman Mark Story said. She concentrated in cyber policy and became a research assistant at the university’s Kogod School of Business. With research funding from the Kogod Cybersecurity Governance Center, she and two professors, Mark A. Clark and J. Alberto Espinosa, co-authored a March 2018 paper on “Cybersecurity Knowledge Networks.” (The paper is still on the center’s website.) Clark and Espinosa declined comment.
The cybersecurity center was founded in 2015 to provide “guidance specifically to boards of directors, senior executives, and other leaders so that they can make informed decisions about cybersecurity.” It has a partnership with defense contractor Raytheon Co., and was headed from June 2017 to March 2018 by a former lawyer for the National Security Agency.
University spokesman Story declined to say whether Butina’s involvement with the center raises any concerns, or if the university plans to review her activities. He added that the center doesn’t do classified work and has no contracts with intelligence agencies.
Raytheon spokesman Michael Doble said, “There is no connection between our support of this respected school and what one of its students may or may not have done.”
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Butina participated in February 2017 in a “weekend of seminars and cultural immersion” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which brought together 10 American University students from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Azerbaijan with a dozen students from Gettysburg College to discuss U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Soviet era. Susan Eisenhower — a frequent adviser to businesses and the U.S. Department of Energy, and an expert on foreign policy and national security issues —led the seminars as well as a tour of the Gettysburg home of her grandfather, President Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower said she wasn’t involved in selecting the American University students. She told me that when the delegation arrived, “I thought it was odd because she [Butina] was a graduate student and the other students were undergraduates. She played a prominent role in the discussions.”
Eisenhower added, “Any group of foreign students could possibly include students who have been called upon by their intelligence service. But we can’t isolate ourselves in a globalized world, and these exchanges play a role in enhancing mutual understanding.”
After the sessions, Butina wrote to Eisenhower, mentioning people they knew in common. Eisenhower answered politely, but was determined to avoid a continuing relationship, she said.
Prosecutors contend that a 56-year-old American — unidentified in court documents, but reportedly a South Dakota businessman and political fundraiser — edited Butina’s papers and answered exam questions for her. “Although she attended classes and completed coursework with outside help, attending American University was Butina’s cover,” the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., said in a legal filing. Story declined comment on the cheating allegations, but noted that, under university policy, it reserves the right to revoke academic credentials acquired through “deceit, fraud, or misrepresentation.”
Robert Driscoll, lawyer for Maria Butina, speaks to members of the media after a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on. July 18. (Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Beyond the university, Butina wooed gun-rights activists and influential conservatives. Shortly after Clinton called Trump to concede defeat on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, Butina sent a direct Twitter message to a Russian official: “I am ready for further orders.”
As the use of Twitter suggests, one of the puzzling aspects of this case is the seemingly slapdash tradecraft compared to Russian intelligence’s usual standards. By contrast, Guryeva funneled names of potential Columbia recruits to Moscow Center via radiograms or electronic messages concealed by special software. Butina’s lawyer has said she simply takes an interest in American politics and is not a Russian agent.
In an interview for my 2017 book, “Spy Schools,” a professor at one top-tier East Coast university described how Russian intelligence tried to recruit him. After he moderated a campus discussion on arms control, a Russian diplomat approached him and invited him to lunch. Suspicious, the professor checked with the FBI, which confirmed that the diplomat was a Russian agent and advised playing along. The bureau wanted to use the professor as a double agent to learn about “Russian collection priorities, tradecraft, and things like that,” he told me. “Just knowing what the other side is really interested in is very valuable.”
Over the next two years, the Russian and the FBI each treated the professor to 10 lunches. He would dine with the Russian spy at Mexican restaurants, French bistros and steakhouses — never the same place twice, because his host was worried about counter-surveillance. The Russian always paid cash: $100 bills. Afterward, the professor would call the FBI agents, who would take him to lunch a few days later and debrief him.
The spy plied the professor with gifts of increasing value: first a fine bottle of Posolskaya vodka, then an $800 Victorinox Swiss Army watch, and finally, in return for an essay about the Afghanistan war, $2,000 in $100 bills. The authoritative-sounding essay didn’t enthrall Russian intelligence. “We appreciate it, but we didn’t think it was that sensitive,” the spy told the professor, who had followed the FBI’s instructions not to divulge any secrets. “We can pay you more if you give us more.”
The agent also encouraged the professor to seek a job in the State Department or Pentagon—where, both men understood without saying, Russia would pay dearly for an inside source. After the spy rotated back to Moscow, the relationship — and the professor’s moonlighting in espionage — ended.
A decade ago, the CIA secretly funded conferences to lure Iranian scientists to defect. If President Trump scuttles the Iranian nuclear agreement, the agency may seek more defectors — and orchestrate more such “conferences.”
In 2013, the FBI recorded two Russian spies under diplomatic cover, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Pobodnyy, discussing efforts to recruit several young women with ties to New York University. Both men specialized in economic espionage and were supposed to gather information on U.S. alternative energy initiatives, as well as on sanctions against Russia. That same year, in a classic example of how spies mine conferences for prospects, Pobodnyy—using his cover as a diplomatic attache—met Carter Page at an energy symposium in New York. Pobodnyy then received documents about the energy business from Page, later a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser whose communications were monitored by the FBI as part of an investigation into links between the campaign and Russia. In July 2016, Page gave a speech at the New Economic School, a Moscow university, exchanging “nice pleasantries” afterwards with Russia’s deputy prime minister.
Page has denied any wrongdoing, saying, “I had a very brief hello to a couple of people. That was it.” The nexus between espionage and academia has surfaced elsewhere in the Trump-Russia imbroglio. One incident involved a professor in the United Kingdom — hardly a surprise, since Russian intelligence has long been notorious for recruiting communist sympathizers from British universities, including Kim Philby and the other “Cambridge Five.”
Joseph Mifsud has been a professor at the University of East Anglia and the University of Stirling in Scotland (which touted his meeting with Russian president and ex-intelligence officer Vladimir Putin), as well as honorary director of the London Academy of Diplomacy. In 2016, he told George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, that the Russians had “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents and media reports. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to federal agents, understood that Mifsud had “substantial connections to Russian government officials,” and had met with them immediately before telling him about the Clinton emails, legal filings show.
Mifsud has denied being a Russian agent. “I am an academic, I do not even speak Russian,” he told The Washington Post.
U.S. universities, ever-sensitive to their finances and global relationships, have largely ignored the threat of foreign espionage: They’re ramping up enrollment of full-paying international students as well as opening campuses abroad, which are often subsidized by the host countries. Columbia didn’t revoke Murphy’s diploma after she turned out to be a spy named Guryeva — though Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government did rescind the degree of another “illegal,” Andrey Bezrukov, who had posed as a Canadian named Donald Heathfield. Story declined to say whether, if Butina is convicted, the university will take away her degree.
Annie Waldman contributed to this story.
Parts of this article were adapted from “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities” (Holt, 2017), by Daniel Golden.