How a likely Kremlin pawn courted US conservatives

How a likely Kremlin pawn courted US conservatives
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Russians are fond of saying, “V chuzhoi monastir so svoim ustavom, ne khodyat” — that is, “No one goes to another monastery with their own charter,” or, the equivalent of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”   

Understanding the foreign “monastery” is a basic requirement for conducting human intelligence, the art of gaining a person’s trust and obtaining protected information from him. Russian intelligence officers such as President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinGOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties We have now reached a code red moment in American democracy Jane Harman: NATO must use its brain cells to battle these threats MORE are trained to exploit Russia’s soft power — language, culture, religion and sports — to build common interests with targeted persons of interest and enable the personal interaction that is essential for espionage.

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Maria Butina, founder of the Russian gun rights group Right to Bear Arms, was arrested by the U.S. government in July 2018, allegedly for using the National Rifle Association and conservative religious organizations to create back channels between conservative Americans and Russian officials. While there is no evidence to prove Butina is an intelligence officer, she appears more likely to be a pawn in the Kremlin’s espionage chess game against its Main Enemy, the United States.

 

The Kremlin would have considered Butina, who ostensibly learned to hunt while growing up in Siberia, an ideal front person to build rapport with American gun enthusiasts. The Russian Parliament has no power. Nongovernmental organizations do not exist without the Kremlin’s approval. “Lobbying” of the sort that takes place in the United States does not remotely exist in Russia, but the Kremlin would have nurtured this fiction to make the right to bear arms appear analogous to the NRA to facilitate contact between members of the two organizations. After founding Right to Bear Arms in 2011, Butina enhanced her bona fides by publicly calling for the relaxation of Russia’s strict gun laws by modeling her gun rights group on the NRA.

With an extensive social media profile in the United States and Russia, Butina proudly highlighted her relationship with Aleksandr Torshin, a former member of the Russian Federation Council and currently deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank. Torshin hired Butina in 2011 and together they lobbied the Federation Council to expand gun rights.  

Butina nurtured common interests among Russian and American gun enthusiasts, which in 2015 resulted in a number of NRA officials attending the Right to Bear Arms’ annual conference in Russia. Torshin and Butina attended NRA meetings and invited key NRA members to Russia, where they met with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is currently on the U.S. sanctions list.

Butina developed high-profile and discoverable links to interest groups dominated by Republicans, including Paul Erickson, a conservative consultant and Republican political operative. With her NGO partner Torshin serving as the discoverable link to the Kremlin, Butina sought to develop relationships with Trump campaign officials.

Putin purposely left a trail of breadcrumbs to the Kremlin in a series of discoverable influence operations — including the three high-profile Russians with links to the Kremlin who attended the June 2016 Trump tower meeting. Rather than use a secret troll factory inside one of his nefarious intelligence services, Putin turned to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which directed the election-related hacking under the leadership of Putin’s personal chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Putin purposely used a Russian geographic endpoint because he knows the best way to degrade our trust in democracy is to create just enough proof that a foreign enemy was seeking to influence our political process to persuade some, but not all, Americans. Putin also wants to make it clear the Kremlin is standing toe-to-toe with the United States, with relatively inexpensive but sophisticated asymmetric espionage operations.

Butina’s social media postings, bank transactions and outreach on behalf of the Russian government appear consistent with Russia’s other discoverable influence operations, even if she was unwitting of the ultimate purpose she was serving. The Kremlin likely instructed her overtly to build a wide array of contacts with influential conservative Americans but without the clandestinity of a classic espionage operation.

Putin wants us to believe he successfully penetrated interest groups, which are popular among Republican Party members and supporters. For Putin, there is no better way to soil the Republican Party’s reputation than to make it appear as though it was subjected to the Kremlin’s intrigues and influence.

Alarm bells should be ringing in the office of the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna Romney McDaniel. The Republican Party is under siege — just like other Kremlin targets, including our critical infrastructure, Democratic National Committee, voting installations, and our social networking and media sites.

McDaniel needs to ensure the party faithful is armed with the knowledge of Russia’s nefarious espionage tactics. She also needs a plan, with support from the federal government, to deter and counter Putin’s vengeful attacks on the party of President Reagan, which caused what Putin has called the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, the collapse of the USSR.

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He reported on the Trump-Putin summit from Helsinki for Fox News.