Maria Butina: Russian gun activist at heart of US Kremlin row

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Ms ButinaImage copyright Maria Butina/Facebook
Image caption Ms Butina had founded a Russian gun rights group before she came to study in America

Maria Butina loves guns, has ties to a top Russian banker, and has now landed in an American jail accused of conspiring against the US government at a time when relations with Moscow are in ferment.

Her arrest was revealed within hours of President Donald Trump’s heavily criticised summit with Vladimir Putin, and Russia smells a rat.

Moscow sees a political motive aimed at undermining their Helsinki summit, but in the US this is the eye-catching story is of a 29-year-old accused of being a «covert Russian» who offered sex in return for a job.

Ms Butina denies the charges against her. She is not accused of being a spy.

Who is Maria Butina?

Born in the southern Siberian city of Barnaul in 1988, according to her Facebook page, she has enjoyed using weapons ever since she was a child, picking up a gun for the first time at the age of 10.

She went to the local Altai state university to study political and educational science, according to her Facebook page. She appears to have been politically engaged and active in the university debating society.

Ms Butina then set up a private furniture company, travelling widely abroad and remaining politically active with the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. And yet she attracted praise from opposition leader Alexei Navalny who spoke of her as a «decent person».

Image copyright Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation
Image caption Maria Butina has from a young age felt passionate about gun rights

Promoting gun rights was clearly a deep passion, as she founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms and called for the sale of short-barrelled firearms to civilians to be made legal.

This, she argued, was «one of the last wishes of Mikhail Kalashnikov», the inventor of the AK-47, and her movement attracted support nationwide. The Russian edition of GQ magazine wrote an admiring profile, complete with photos of her in high heels and Versace, with revolvers in her hands.

Her self-defence drive fell flat because of government opposition.

But her movement continued to grow and one of its members was Alexander Torshin, a member of the Russian senate and deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank.

In 2012 he became a life member of the National Rifle Association in the US. His ties with the NRA endured and Maria Butina became his «unpaid special assistant».

Mr Torshin is under sanction from the US Treasury, and is being investigated by the FBI over allegations of funnelling money to the NRA to aid the Trump campaign.

Moving to America

Maria Butina began travelling to the US for NRA conventions, and in 2015 she attended a Trump campaign event in Las Vegas, asking the presidential candidate about his views on US sanctions in Russia.

By 2016 she had a student visa for a Master’s at American University in Washington DC.

Image copyright Facebook/ Maria Butina
Image caption Maria Butina travelled to NRA conventions in the US and is seen here with Alexander Torshin (L) and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

Her LinkedIn profile says that she was focusing on «cyber policy, the Internet of Things, cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology».

According to US court filings, she was living with a 56-year-old American. In some of her photos on social media, she is seen with Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based conservative political activist.

She attended a National Prayer Breakfast in 2017 in the US when President Trump gave a speech. «It is important to support Trump morally,» she was quoted as saying in the Russian press.

Political expert Andrei Kolyadin used her as an interpreter at the event and told Interfax news agency she had been considering what she should do after graduation in May.

Whatever her plans, gun rights have remained close to her heart and she has been highly active on social media, with accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and, until recently, a blog on LiveJournal.

She has also never shied away from a public profile. In one piece on the Russian Snob website she said her dream was «to live in a prosperous, highly-developed country, leading in the world, and without migration».

In another interview in 2016 with the Russian-based Guns website, she said she hoped that the Russian government would allow her organisation «to work with young children in schools» like the NRA in the US.

‘No spy qualities’

Alexander Torshin has not yet commented on her arrest.

However, the FBI alleges he was her main point of contact in Russia and the two shared a string of messages. Prosecutors argue her aim was to carry out a «covert influence» campaign for the Russian government.

Image copyright FACEBOOK/MARIA BUTINA
Image caption Maria Butina’s father has condemned the accusations against her

For now she faces charges that carry sentences of several years in jail.

Her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, has said she is not an agent of the Russian Federation and that there is no evidence against her.

Her father Valery has called the charges against her «psychopathy and a witch-hunt».

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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