One week after the Department of Justice laid out its official complaint against Maria Butina — namely, how the Russian national managed to build up a network of contacts in the Republican Party and National Rifle Association (NRA) alike — a number of questions remain. Who, for instance, is the unnamed second American who helped Butina coordinate her efforts? Which other Republicans did she manage to meet with? And what was Butina’s ultimate aim in cultivating her NRA contacts?
New revelations from the weekend brought an answer to one of these lingering questions. On Sunday, a person familiar with Butina’s testimony before Senate investigators told the Washington Post that she’d been financed by Russian billionaire Konstantin Nikolaev. A governmental document supporting Butina’s current detention noted evidence that Butina’s “Twitter messages, chat logs, and emails refer” to Nikolaev, whom Butina described as her “funder.”
Nikolaev, worth an estimated $1.2 billion, isn’t nearly as prominent as other Kremlin oligarchs — or even some of the so-called “minigarchs” attempting to climb into Russia’s upper crust — nor has he been on the receiving end of previous U.S. sanctions, despite revelations that he has worked closely elsewhere with Kremlin insiders like Arkady Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko. (For good measure, Nikolaev’s son, Andrey, worked as a volunteer with Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.)
The news of Nikolaev’s role in Butina’s infiltration efforts, however, follows on the heels of other oligarch-linked revelations, ranging from a coup attempt in Montenegro to protests in Macedonia, funded or brain-stormed by Russian oligarchs.
ThinkProgress spoke with Mark Galeotti, a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, and author of a recent book on organized crime in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to get his impression on how Butina’s NRA operations fit with the other strands of Russian interference that have come to light — as well as what we should be looking for in the weeks to come.
We’ve learned plenty about Maria Butina’s work over the past week — her ties with the NRA, with Republican higher-ups, how she managed to work those contacts. What do you make of the indictment against Butina? Is there anything that stands out to you, or is this something that fits everything we’ve come to expect over the past few months?
To be honest, it seems like it was largely predictable, in that, to a large extent, this is how Putin’s system works — particularly if it’s seeking to influence and penetrate democratic political systems, and particularly those systems in which there are many open, powerful lobbying groups. This is exactly the process we’ve seen with people like [Natalia] Veselnistakaya, the lawyer [who met with Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in 2016].
The Kremlin is actually relatively open in what it’s looking for with the U.S., so we’ve seen a whole range of different agencies and actors, of oligarchs and ‘minigarchs,’ of these multiple forms of operations that these people can then take to the Kremlin. And the Kremlin knows that if these projects fail, they’ll deny knowledge of them — but, conversely, if they succeed, that these relationships can then be leveraged.
Given everything we’ve seen come out about Butina and the NRA — how she viewed her work, how people in her orbit viewed her — it doesn’t seem like her project initially began as something direct from the Kremlin, although her messages certainly made it seem like it reached the Kremlin’s upper reaches toward and after the U.S.’s presidential election. Does everything we’ve learned about the structure of her work tell us anything about broader Russian interference operations? Or about why the NRA in particular may have been targeted?
We shouldn’t assume people in the Kremlin said, ‘If only we can penetrate the NRA.’ But also, we shouldn’t assume it was a purely cynical attempt at interference, especially since Butina does have a track record of advocating for gun rights… But these people who put these types of operations together have a natural tendency to say, ‘How can I leverage and monetize these types of relations?’, whether it’s an appeal to the Kremlin, or another potential patron.
That said, the NRA very clearly has a formidable and carnivorous operation anyway, is very close to Republicans, and it fits into a slightly wider, semi-libertarian, social conservative political agenda that clearly Russians have been pushing… So this is particularly the type of constituency they could find leverage with.
Turning to the revelations about Nikolaev, I think it’s fair to say that almost no one had expected to see his name attached. He’s not sanctioned, even though he’s worked closely with people like Rotenberg and Timchenko. Were you expecting that it would be Nikolaev that came out as the so-called ‘funder’ for Butina?
This is the point where I obviously could burnish my credentials, and say that I completely expected Nikolaev to be named. But no: absolutely not… And what makes this particularly a difficult issue to address is that we’re not simply identifying a handful of individuals we can target. Really, in a way it reflects this extent to which, in Russia, politics and business overlap so fluidly. So all of a sudden a name [like Nikolaev] pops up, and then he risks being sanctioned. But we shouldn’t assume he’s the mastermind. He’s one of many in this complex, spider-webbed economy — one where the Kremlin is dominant.
There are still plenty of unknowns about Butina’s case: the other Americans involved, her ultimate aims, etc. Are there any specifics you’d still like to learn about? Any other information you’re keen to watch for?
First of all, I’m interested to see how this discussion of Butina being an agent plays out. At present, it looks as if Butina was a wannabe lobbyist rather than a power-broker. She may have been trying to pitch herself to the Russian intelligence community, but I don’t see her as a graduate of the school of spycraft. So it will be interesting to see who any contacts were, if it looks as if she was being inducted [into Russian intelligence], or if it again says something more about wannabe political entrepreneurs who are desperately trying to get in.
Second, I want to see if there was any kind of meaningful tasking, other than just Butina getting into the right circles and talking to the right people. Was there a kind of a desire, communicated from Nikolaev or [sanctioned Russian official Alexander] Torshin, for something specific? What did they want out of it?
And the third thing — and this is another example of when the Russian political-economic system interacts with the American one — is particularly whether funding was coming from Nikolaev, or whether there was any suggestion that there was encouragement to do so from higher up. For some [oligarchic funders] this is a way of putting their own money in something like a start-up, but in other cases there’s someone connected to the Kremlin saying, ‘We would like you to do this or that…’ But I don’t think the NRA case was anything as serious [as the coup attempt in Montenegro]. This was, shall we say, grooming — acquiring contacts that we may see used for some operational purpose.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.