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Kremlin Blessed Russia’s NRA Operation, U.S. Intel Report Says

The Kremlin has long denied that it had anything to do with the infiltration of the NRA and the broader American conservative movement. A U.S. intelligence report reviewed by The Daily Beast tells a different story.

Alexander Torshin, the Russian central bank official who spent years aggressively courting NRA leaders, briefed the Kremlin on his efforts and recommended they participate, according to the report. Its existence and contents have not previously been reported.

While there has been speculation that Torshin and his protege, Maria Butina, had the Kremlin’s blessing to woo the NRA—and federal prosecutors have vaguely asserted that she acted “on behalf of the Russian federation”—no one in the White House or the U.S. intelligence community has publicly stated as much. Senior Russian government officials, for their part, have strenuously distanced themselves from Butina’s courtship of the NRA, which she did at Torshin’s direction.

The report, on the other hand, notes that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was fine with Torshin’s courtship of the NRA because the relationships would be valuable if a Republican won the White House in 2016.

“This reporting indicates that Alexander Torshin was working with the blessing of the Kremlin, at a minimum,” one European intelligence official told The Daily Beast. The official added that this reporting is consistent with his group’s understanding of how the Kremlin operates.

“The NRA is quite powerful, so when you look to influence U.S. politics, you should consider them as a convenient target,” the official added.

The report, published last year, is based on conversations that happened in 2015, before NRA leaders visited Moscow on a trip arranged by Torshin and Butina. The document does not specifically name the NRA or the Republican Party, but its context makes clear it is discussing those two American organizations. (American intelligence reports generally do not name U.S. persons or organizations for privacy and legal reasons.)

According to the report, Torshin suggested that Russian officials use the NRA to reach out to politically active Americans. Torshin, then a deputy governor at Russia’s central bank, noted the gun rights group’s influence in U.S. politics. He told the Kremlin about his contacts in the NRA, including conversations and meetings in the United States, and suggested that Kremlin officials scrutinize how some people affiliated with the group viewed relations between the U.S. and Russia.

The report notes that Russian officials discussed having their embassy in Washington participate in the work of courting the NRA. Kremlin officials also discussed preparations for NRA members’ upcoming trip to Moscow. Torshin recommended that someone from President Vladimir Putin’s executive office, meaning the group of people who support his day-to-day activities, meet with the group.

“My assessment of what was happening with Torshin and Butina and the NRA was that the Russians decided, a good period of time before 2016, to run an influence operation here in the U.S. with a couple of different goals,” said Steve Hall, who spent 30 years in the CIA and oversaw its Russia operations. “The obvious goal was the one the intelligence community assessed back in 2016, which was to help Donald Trump win and increase the likelihood that Hillary Clinton would lose. In addition, they wanted to create as much chaos in our democracy as possible.”

Spokespersons for the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story. A lawyer for Butina declined to comment as well.

Kremlin officials at the highest levels have tried to distance themselves from Torshin’s outreach to the NRA. Last month, Putin denied that he or his security chiefs were aware of the undertaking.  

“I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on,” he said, regarding Butina. “Nobody knows anything about her.”

And in April of 2017, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s longtime spokesperson, said nobody in the Kremlin knew anything about the broader courtship of American conservatives by prominent Russians.

“We know nothing about that,” Peskov told The Washington Post.

Torshin and the Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Torshin spent years building relationships with the NRA, as The Daily Beast previously detailed. A Tennessee lawyer named G. Kline Preston, who practices law in the U.S. and Russia, has said he introduced Torshin to David Keene, who helmed the NRA for a time and remained deeply active in its work after ending his time running it. Thanks to Keene, Torshin built connections throughout the gun rights movement and among prominent American conservatives. Torshin also dispatched Butina, a Siberian gun rights activist, to work in the U.S. maintaining those relationships and developing new ones. Butina struck up a romance with Paul Erickson, also an influential member of the American gun rights movement, and with his help built more elaborate plans for winning allies in the NRA.

“My assessment of what was happening with Torshin and Butina and the NRA was that the Russians decided, a good period of time before 2016, to run an influence operation here in the U.S.”

— CIA veteran Steve Hall

Before moving to the U.S., she helmed a Russian gun rights organization called The Right to Bear Arms. Oligarch Konstantin Nikolaev, with the help of P.R. operator Igor Pisarsky, helped fund the group.

In December of 2015, she and Torshin helped arrange for a group of influential NRA members to travel to the Kremlin, where they had high-level meetings—including with the country’s powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov; and sanctioned Putin deputy Dmitry Rogozin, an ultra-right politician who oversaw the country’s defense industry. A schedule of the 2015 trip which The Daily Beast reviewed showed attendees also planned to drive to the Presidential Administration Office on Dec. 9, 2015, for a meeting with Evgeny Lukyanov, then the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council. NRA trip participants did not respond to queries about whether the scheduled meeting with Lukyanov took place.  When the trip made national news after the U.S. intelligence community publicly asserted that the Kremlin had tried to help Donald Trump win the 2016 campaign, Keene said it wasn’t about politics.

“Rogozin is chairman of the Russian Shooting Federation and his Board hosted a tour of Federation HQ for us while we were there,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was non-political. There were at least 30 in attendance and our interaction consisted of thanking him and his Board for the tour.”

Torshin and Butina’s outreach to the NRA ended unhappily for both of them. The United States placed Torshin under sanctions, and he recently left his post at the central bank. Butina, meanwhile, pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to act as a covert foreign agent. She is in jail awaiting sentencing, and agreed to cooperate with American prosecutors on their investigations.

The Senate intelligence committee is also probing Russian efforts to court the NRA. Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating the NRA’s Russia ties as well.

One veteran CIA officer noted that references to the Kremlin in intelligence reports have a more specific meaning than in general parlance, where Americans sometimes use the phrase as a metonym for the entire Russian government.

“In U.S. intelligence reports like this one, the phrase ‘the Kremlin’ generally refers to Vladimir Putin and his small inner circle, which would include key power ministers, including the heads of the intelligence services (SVR, FSB, GRU), the foreign minister, and oligarch cronies,” said a 30-year veteran of the CIA with deep knowledge of the Russian intelligence services who spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity around issues related to Russia. “In this case, Kremlin decision-making would have likely been a smaller, even more limited, group.”

International affairs professor Nina Khrushcheva of the New School, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that the American intelligence officers who produced the report described in this piece may have overstated the Kremlin’s organization and efficiency.

“I’m sure there’s truth to the report,” she said, “but that kind of incredible consistency and logic that Americans have in their report about what and how Russia is doing is just culturally wrong.”

“Russia is a chaotic country that makes it up as it goes along,” she added.

—with additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova