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Thursday, July 19, 2018

From gun lover to Russian spy

Por Nina

It was July 2015 and Donald Trump, then a multi-millionaire New Yorker with aspirations to reach the presidency, was answering the question that a young Russian redhead asked him about what plans he had for US relations with his country if he won the elections, a vision that was just beginning to take shape then; one month after the magnate presented his candidacy. "I think I would get on very well with [Vladimir] Putin," the now-US president said. The woman in question was Mariia Butina, a 27-year-old gun lover - she is now 29 and has just graduated from an International Services Master's degree program at the American University of Washington - who began to cajole with the heavyweights of the National Association of the Rife (NRA), of which she is a life member, in order to gain access to conservative circles in the United States.

Her social networks testify to how far her talent has come: there are dozens of photographs posted of her meetings with US politicians, including the Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, or former Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, among others. Her social sideboard adds to the evidence provided by federal prosecutors who accuse Butina of conspiring as an undercover foreign agent for Russia from within the Republican Party. For three years, authorities say, the girl was part of an influence operation that was led by a senior Russian official, Alexander Torshin. Court documents also reveal that Butina received help from the NRA, which repeatedly invited her to conventions from her native Russia, where the girl had founded a weapons defense group (called The Right to Carry Arms) in 2011, until she obtained the student visa in August 2016.

Butina, who was arrested last weekend by the FBI, denies having committed any crime. Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, argues that she is a simple, legitimate graduate of a US university and an aspiring businesswoman who turned out to be a Russian. "She intends to defend her rights energetically and hopes to clear her name," added her lawyer.

"It's a psychosis. A witch hunt," condemned her father, Valery Butin, from his hometown, Barnaul, according to the Altapress website on Wednesday. In the same direction, the president of the organization founded by Butina, Igor Shmelyov, pointed out: "Maria is interested in arms, so, of course, her social circle is connected to this", in reference to the interactions she had with supporters of the NRA. "To say that all this means that I was pushing for Russian interests is pretty ridiculous," she told The Washington Post. Russian authorities say they are not surprised at the arrest: "There is nothing new in this case," Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said on Wednesday, according to Russian news agencies and the Associated Press. "The US intelligence services are investigating Russian citizens not only in the US but also in other countries." Russian television supported by the Kremlin calls Butina an "ideal victim" of the anti-Russian hysteria that Americans live. However, the FBI justifies its accusation with several private conversations held by Butina and Torshin, deputy director of the Central Bank of Russia and subject to US sanctions since April for participating in the advancement of the "malign activities" of the Kremlin.

"Maria Butina is currently in the United States. She writes to me that Trump (a member of the NRA) is really in favor of cooperating with Russia," Torshin tweeted in Russian in February 2016. Among the private messages, highlights one that Butina sent in March 2016 to an unidentified US contact to let him know that Putin's administration had approved both her efforts and Torshin's to build a "communication channel" with the United States, as revealed by the papers of the investigation to which several local media have had access. In more private messages, sent via Twitter, Torshin instructed her protégé to face her mission as a long match, that had cold-blooded and to avoid "burn fast." One month before the presidential elections of November 2016, she wrote: "Only incognito!. At this moment everything has to be calm and careful," according to The New York Times. Already in the unexpected election victory of Trump, Butina sent another message to her Russian mentor: "I'm going to sleep. Its 3am. here. I am ready to [receive] more orders ", the same sources point out.

But how Butina went from living in a remote city in Siberia, where her father taught her and her sister to hunt bears and wolves, to be under suspicion of spying for the Kremlin? With just 20 years old, the one also mentioned by the feds as Mariia, seemed to have an incipient political career and a small furniture empire in Barnaul, but she left everything to pursue her passion: weapons. Around them the relationship with Torshin was forged, which hired her as a special assistant to accompany him to his trips to the United States and to act as translator, among other tasks.

The banker close to Putin knew senior officials of the National Rifle Association and on occasion he also contacted John R. Bolton, Donald Trump's current National Security Adviser, who appeared at a round table on the rights of weapons organized by Butina in 2013. Along with Torshin, who said last year in a Bloomberg interview that he had known Trump for five years, Butina tried to arrange a meeting with the current US president while he was still a Republican presidential candidate, but they only managed to meet with his son, Donald Trump Jr., in which, according to someone close to the meeting that was interviewed by CNN, only weapons were talked about. The trial may bring a little light to Butina's case. Currently she is waiting in preventive prison to fight for her innocence in the trial, but if she fails, and the accusations against her are proven, she could be sentenced to five years in prison.