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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

US arrests Russian agent for conspiring to influence American politics

Mariia Butina is the founder of the pro-gun rights Russian advocacy organisation Right to Bear Arms

A 29-year-old Russian woman has been arrested for conspiring to influence US politics by cultivating ties with political groups including the gun rights lobby the National Rifle Association. AFP/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS
A 29-year-old Russian woman has been arrested for conspiring to influence US politics by cultivating ties with political groups including the gun rights lobby the National Rifle Association. AFP/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

US authorities arrested a Russian national and accused her of acting as a Russian agent without registering, a day before President Donald Trump sided with President Vladimir Putin over Russian election interference.

The Justice Department accused the woman, Mariia Butina, of trying to “create a back-channel line of communication” between US and Russian officials and attempting to infiltrate the National Rifle Association on behalf of the Russian government.

Ms Butina served as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator belonging to Vladimir Putin’s political party with alleged ties to the Russian mob world.

Mr Torshin isn’t named in the complaint but is identifiable by title. Mr Torshin, who is now under sanctions by the US government, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The arrest is the latest demonstration of a split personality within the Trump administration. Prosecutors said Butina herself described the goal of the assignment as “a serious mission – restoration of relations between countries.” Hours before she appeared in court, Mr Trump and Mr Putin took the stage at a meeting in Helsinki and said they sought to restore ties between the nations.

On Friday, the US charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with computer attacks meant to undermine the Democratic Party during the 2016 election. That same day, Trump called the probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a “witch hunt.” The investigation is now being handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which brought the charges against Ms Butina.

Ms Butina, who entered the US on a student visa, is in custody and is scheduled to appear in court again on July 18.

Her organisation, Right to Bear Arms, advocated for American-style Second Amendment rights among Russian citizens. Russian laws surrounding firearms are considerably more strict than that of the US

“She’s very, very well connected with elected officials in the Soviet Union,” Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said of Ms Butina in a 2017 interview with Time. A 2015 gun rights event she organised allegedly drew the attention of several National Rifle Association officials, including Pete Brownell, who until recently was the head of the group’s board. He was replaced by Oliver North.

“I am deeply grateful for the friendship of the American NRA,” Ms Butina told Time in 2017. “My work has been focused exclusively on the expansion of gun rights – very publicly.”

Mr Torshin has repeatedly sought to bolster ties to the Trump family using connections he made at the NRA. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether the NRA took money from Russian interests that was then used to boost Mr Trump’s campaign.

Mr Torshin himself leveraged his relationships to reach out to the Trumps, seeking at one point to set up a dinner between Mr Trump and Mr Putin. Around then, Donald Trump Jr and Mr Torshin met briefly at an NRA-related event in Kentucky.