One of the biggest stories of the week had to do with a Russian, but not directly related to the Mueller investigation.
Maria Butina, a 30-year-old Russian national, admitted Thursday in federal court that she made contacts with the NRA and top Republican officials in an attempt to secretly influence US politics at Russia’s behest.
Butina, who is a gun rights activist, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. She admitted to acting under the direction of a Russian official, Alexander Torshin, another prominent gun rights supporter and a fixture in Russian politics.
In other words, Butina was a Russian agent whose job was to infiltrate the NRA in particular and gun rights groups in general. Given what we know about how things work in Russia, it might be that Torshin was her handler, but ultimately Butina would have been working at the behest of Vladimir Putin. If that is correct, it is important to keep in mind that Russia’s president is no supporter of gun rights when it comes to his own people. So Butina’s work was more aimed at infiltrating a conservative political audience than anything having to do with their agenda.
With that in mind, it is worth remembering that gun rights groups aren’t the only conservative political audience Putin courted. Back in 2017, Casey Michel documented how Russia became the global leader of the Christian right. It all started when Putin mended fences with the Russian Orthodox Church and then started inserting things like this into his public pronouncements.
“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” he said at a conference in 2013. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual … They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” By succumbing to secularism, he noted on another occasion, the West was trending toward “chaotic darkness” and a “return to a primitive state.”
White evangelicals like Franklin Graham ate it up—especially when it was paired with Putin’s crack-down on gays and lesbians in 2013.
The other group Putin courted was white nationalists. For example, he sent a Russian emissary to a meeting of American and European white nationalists in Hungary in 2014 and hosted a meeting of white nationalists in St. Petersburg in 2015. More in keeping with the kind of activity in which Russia engaged during the presidential election, it turns out that an online leader of secessionist movements in the U.S. was operating from his apartment in Yekaterinburg—about 1,000 miles from Moscow.
What we see with all of this is that since about a year after he was re-elected as president of Russia, Putin hasn’t simply been recruiting Donald Trump as an asset, he has been courting the three groups that now make up the base of the Republican Party: gun rights groups, white evangelicals, and white nationalists. You might ask what Putin would get out of that.
There are those who have questioned why these groups remain loyal to [Trump] as the facts emerge about his relationship with Russia. The reason is obvious. For several years now Vladimir Putin has been busy courting groups that as recently as 30 years ago would have happily taken up arms (literally) against the “evil empire.” They now see their interests aligned with his.
With the news that Butina was operating as a Russian agent to infiltrate one of those groups, the other two should probably pursue their membership for signs that they have been infiltrated as well. That is exactly what one would expect from a former KGB officer turned president.