WASHINGTON ― A Russian national with close ties to the National Rifle Association and to a well-connected Republican operative was arrested this week and charged with illegally acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation, federal authorities announced on Monday.
Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian who has been living in Washington was arrested Sunday, following an FBI investigation that included a search of two of Butina’s electronic devices.
In an affidavit unsealed Monday, Kevin Helson, an FBI agent with the counterintelligence division within the bureau’s Washington field office, said he’d found evidence that Butina had worked with an unnamed Russian official to establish what she called “back channel” lines of communication between the Kremlin and American politicians, presumably within the GOP. According to Helson, Butina sought to use the NRA to gain access to U.S. officials in order to pursue the interests of the Russian government.
Butina, also known as Mariia Butina, is a former furniture store owner and founder of the Russian gun rights group The Right to Bear Arms. She came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2016 to study at American University in Washington, though her involvement in conservative activism dates back to at least 2014, when she attended the NRA convention in Indianapolis.
Through Butina’s advocacy on gun rights, she became close friends and business partners with Paul Erickson, a well-connected Republican political operative, The Daily Beast reported.
Butina has also been widely reported to be a close confidante of Alexander Torshin, a former member of Russian parliament who is now deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia. Torshin and Butina (pictured below) both claim to be “life members” of the NRA, which the affidavit refers to as a “GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION.”
The affidavit contains digital communications Butina exchanged with an unnamed “Russian official,” as well as two separate American individuals.
In one Twitter message Butina sent to the Russian official on the night of President Donald Trump’s election, she says she is “ready for further orders.”
The affidavit also references an email “U.S. Person I” sent to “an acquaintance,” in which the individual discusses his involvement “in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”
“Based on my training, experience, and familiarity with this investigation, I believe that this email describes U.S. Person 1′s involvement in BUTINA’s efforts to establish a ‘back channel’ communication for representatives of the Government of Russia,” Helson wrote in the affidavit.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a HuffPost request for comment.
The investigation was separate from the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. A number of Russian officials were indicted on Friday for conspiring to hack the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The charges against Butina came shortly after Trump held an unusual press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Trump undermined his own government’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
In a statement, Butina’s attorney said her actions amounted to “open and public networking” by a foreign student rather than a nefarious effort at covert propaganda.
A judge has ordered Butina to be held without bond and has set a detention hearing and preliminary hearing for Wednesday, according to the Justice Department.
Read the affidavit below.
This post has been updated with more details from the affidavit and more information about Butina.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Butina had been indicted. Although she has been charged, a grand jury has not returned an official indictment.