True romance? The intriguing tale of the Russian agent and her Republican lover

Was Maria Butinas involvement with an eccentric political operative true love or, as attorneys allege, a facade to assist the Kremlin infiltrate Americas conservative upper-clas?

Most intrigues don’t end in indictment- but then again, the relationship between Maria Butina and Paul Erickson isn’t like most romances.

If anything, the love story between a gun-loving Russian covert agent and a conservative activist cum alleged fraudster, reads like a Coen brethren movie. There’s the plot of a legal thriller( Bridge of Spies ), the self-defeating scheming of a crime drama( Fargo ), the excess of a religion classic( The Big Lebowski ), and even a little bit of romance( just about everything, really, ever ).

But Butina will be in no mood for story twistings when she appears in courtroom on Thursday for what she hopes is likely to be the last hearing in a saga that has had her sitting in solitary confinement since her arrest in Washington last-place summertime, and on FBI watchlists for years.

She stands accused of acting as an undercover affect agent for Russia and exploiting personal linkages, in part of a greater Kremlin-backed plan to infiltrate influential conservative groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, and steer American politics in Moscow’s direction, according to a criminal complaint.

Butina was apprehended last July, the same month that Robert Mueller indicted a dozen other alleged Kremlin-linked intelligence agents in Russia for hacking Democratic computers in 2016. But the story of how she leveraged her connection to a black-sheep GOP operative with a history of taking on questionable makes, certainly sets the narrative apart.

For one thing, it’s a love story- ” a classic love story “~ ATAGEND- to hear her lawyer tell it.

Whatever the truth of their associate, its relations with the Republican operative virtually twice her age- with a speckled past that ranged from task as an 80 s anti-communist film producer, a spokeswoman for John Wayne Bobbitt and lobbyist for a notorious African dictator, to a trail of lawsuits for reportedly misleading investors and is inadequate to repay loans- separates the example from other the findings of Russian meddling in American politics.

Even if special counselor Robert Mueller noted no collusion between Trump and Russia, here at least is one small-time lesson of conspiracy of the most intimate sort.

And it’s one that offers a window into a mess of complicated relationships between Kremlin-connected officials and America’s republican upper-clas, or at the least elite-adjacent.

Butina’s playbook mingled the political with the personal. It’s also something that Butina excelled at- or was thought to excel at until last-place 15 July, when she opened the door of her DC apartment and was surrounded by FBI agents in bulletproof vests.

Now, after pleading guilty to conspiracy, Butina is poised to find out whether she’ll get as much as five years in jail or go free practically immediately.” If she got the time-served convict, she would be manager back to Russia soon after ,” her lawyer Robert Driscoll told the Guardian.

Meanwhile, it appears the legal hassle is just beginning for Erickson, who was indicted last month in his house government of South Dakota on 11 counts of fraud and money laundering. The charges stem from an assisted living-related business scheme, with activities extending from 1996 to August of 2018, and involving the notable claim that Erickson scammed investors considering fallacious development of a wheelchair to help people access a toilet with greater ease.

Erickson pleaded not guilty to all countings last month in the fraud instance. Meanwhile, he is also reported to be a target in the Butina case, although he has yet to face any accuses there.

Recently his imprisoned paramour has been engaged in cooperating with officials, and their visits being increasingly sparse, according to someone very well known the relations between the two countries. So even more hassle could be on the way.


Loving Maria Butina wasn’t ever so fraught for Paul Erickson.

The woman he fell for was raised in the rugged mountain field of south Siberia known as Altai, where just about everyone owned a rifle and her fond childhood recollections included learning to shoot with her father.

But Erickson wouldn’t meet her until 2013 while on a visit to Moscow, where after some fledgling success in the local furniture retail economy of Siberia, Butina had moved in her 20 s. There, she seemed to have found her calling as a artillery rights exponent, helping to create The Right To Bear Arms in 2011, with early recruiting tries centered on women and self-defense.

Erickson had also grown up in inhospitable climes, as a native of Vermillion, South Dakota. He had been active in politics since his teens, and was already get into trouble for it as an underclassman at the University of South Dakota. He was stripped of his title of vice president of the student association for disclosing confidential student records as one of the purposes of a campaign to defeat then-Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, according to a 2003 profile in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Even then he had mastered the artwork of failing up: after the Daschle debacle, he successfully transferred to Yale, going on to graduate from there and with a statute academy degree from the University of Virginia in 1988.

Butina goes to court on Thursday for what she hopes will be the last hearing in a tale that has had her in solitary confinement since her seize last summer. Photograph: Dana Verkouteren/ AP

” Paul’s an ultimate conman ,” Lee Schoenbeck, a country senator from South Dakota who firstly fulfilled Erickson through South Dakota College Republican circles around 1979, told the Guardian.” Paul would rather steal a buck from somebody than work hard enough to earn two bucks .”

But those early years in South Dakota were the first sign of the political operator he would become. And perhaps, decades later, can also be used help explain what made him appealing to Butina: here was a man who, given the right motivations, would do just about anything.

The gun group founded by a young Butina enjoyed financing support from at the least one Russian billionaire, Konstantin Nikolaev, with ties to a Russian grease-gun company, and from Russian senator Alexander Torshin, a Putin ally who later became a top Moscow banker and her handler in American covert endeavors, according to courtroom documents.

Torshin and Butina were both life-time NRA members who for several years attended NRA conventions, as well as hosting occurrences for wealthy, gun-loving NRA honchos willing to venture abroad.

And so it was that Butina encountered Erickson in 2013.

He had come on the trip-up somewhat by chance, as accompaniment to the former NRA president David Keene, a longtime friend and political collaborator- almost 20 times earlier, they had worked togetherlobbying on behalf of Mobutu Sese Seko, the heads of state of what was then Zaire.

Erickson explained in a 2017 interview that Keene had been hobbled by a bad knee and welcomed extra assistance abroad.

Fortunately for Keene, he was surrounded by many friends.” Keene and the NRA had a moral obligation to support them ,” Erickson recalled of that first has met with Butina’s group. Butina’s fledgling group” considered the NRA to be a role model .”

The Moscow confab attracted about 400 people including farmers and former soldiers, Erickson remembered, with talkers including Keene and Torshin, then a powerful Russian senator and Putin ally who helped launch the artillery privileges group and had first encountered Keene at an NRA meeting in Pittsburgh in 2011.

But it was Butina’s performance above all that had Erickson gushing.” It was an impressive meet ,” Erickson said. “She was being very brave.”

He had faith in Butina, and decided to take her under his wing post-Moscow gratify.” I advised her on setting up a consulting activity ,” Erickson said, adding somewhat enigmatically:” Maria is a protege of ours .”


On the face of it , they made a mis-matched pair: as a balding Republican operative pushing 50, Erickson was already around twice Butina’s age at the time they met.

Butina has owned her romantic participate with Erickson, but the nature of their romantic associate remains a topic of dispute.

Is Erickson simply another middle-aged, middling periphery player, depict in over his head by a relationship he thinks he commands? Did she ever really love him? And is impossible to presuppose he actually adoration her, that there was something beyond the firearms and cherry-red mane?

In many spaces their political superstars were aligned: Butina’s desire to help Russia on the world stage meshed well with the limb of American conservatism increasingly open to the notion that Russia was no longer the foe of cold war years. Instead, Erickson and some prominent republicans like ex-Congressman Dana Rohrabacher are anxious to seeing common ground with Russians on firearm issues, as well as social and religious causes.

Maria Butina allegedly applied her linkages in the firearm world-wide to bridge cultural subdivides. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP

Prosecutors have alleged Butina ensnared Erickson in a” duplicitous relationship”, at times expressing “disdain” for him. Also, that while she’s believed to have co-habited with him she only did so because she viewed these agreements as” a necessary aspect of her activities “.

Butina’s lawyer has pushed back on the amount claimed, sharing photographs of the pair and even releasing some slightly bizarre video footage of the two staring adoringly into one another’s eyes as they sing the name track to Beauty and the Beast- a tribute, Driscoll said, to Butina’s fascination with Disney, as well as a birthday present for Erickson.

Years after he firstly encountered Erickson, when the friend of one of Schoenbeck’s school sidekicks married Erickson’s sister, he heard reports through the grapevine about how Erickson was proving up at family assembles with his’ fiance ,’ the beautiful Russian redhead- and knew something wasn’t right.

” Paul with his vanity thinks this chick is after him, that this bald-headed, overweight person is sexy or something, she was in it for love ,” Schoenbeck said.” We have been tittering about it- the Russians must be thinking,’ We expended all this money and all we got is this bloviating clown with a fake resume ?'”


Butina wore many hats, presenting as a gun preach, reporter, “daredevil” working undercover, and assiduous graduate student-depending on whom she was speaking to.

But if chameleoning is her strong suit, in Erickson, with his political tasks that changed as frequently as the climate, she had convened her match.

By the time he satisfied Butina in Moscow in 2013, Erickson had lived what might seem like many different people’s lives, or one man’s extremely screwball one, with attainments ranging from high profile to bizarre, but skewing towards the latter.

Erickson came up at a time when republican labels like Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff were ascendant, part of what Mother Jones called a” platoon of baby-faced Reagan enthusiasts “. After graduating from law school, Erickson expended the 1980 s and’ 90 s trying on political jobs like so many ill-fitting sweatshirts.

He expressed support for pro-Western revolts in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, delivering assistance to “freedom fighters,” a popular republican induce during the course of its Reagan times. Then in 1988, he teamed up with Abramoff, an old-fashioned sidekick from college Republican cliques( who years later becomes a convicted lobbyist ), to try his hand in Hollywood, helping to produce the anti-communist act flick Red Scorpion.

In 1992, Erickson worked on Pat Buchanan’s losing presidential entreat, even rising up to the ephemeral glory of campaign political director. A few years after that, the information was tabloid history that came knocking when John Wayne Bobbitt’s spouse took his penis with a carving bayonet and Erickson did a brief stint as his spokesman.

In 1995, Erickson and his NRA buddy Keene ran as foreign agent in collaboration with Abramoff, lobbying to help Mobutu gain entry into the United States.

In 1997 when evangelicals pushed to get half a million-plus Christian humankinds out and marching on Washington to, as a Baltimore Sun report from the time featuring Erickson set it, help men” reclaim their traditional role over women ,” Erickson was on the scene there too.

More recently he served as an consultant for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Like a Forrest Gump of republican politics, he was forever stumbling upon record but never playing much of a role.

Butina would cure him of that, but perhaps not in the way he wished.


Butina’s relationship with Erickson started as a professional connect. And even as it developed, through correspondence and in early transatlantic meets, business was never beside the point.

Butina hosted Erickson in Moscow again at an another Privilege to Bear Arms session in September of 2014. And such hospitality was handsomely refunded with Torshin and Butina attending the NRA’s annual conventions in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

She likewise entered the US in 2016 on an F-1 student visa, purportedly to enroll as a graduate student at American University and be closer to her boyfriend.

It was also, lawyers say, a comfy perch from which to be undertaken by what the fuck is called her” covert influence campaign” on behalf of the Kremlin toward the NRA and republican religious groups, like the organisers of the National Prayer Breakfast all part of a multi-pronged try that involved” substantial planning, international concerted and planning “.

During the two years she spent at American’s global security program, Butina studied cybersecurity of all arenas, and lived amongst the neat brick suites in McLean Gardens in north-west DC.

Her strong pro-Russia views described notice at academy. She voiced outspoken permission of the Russian attack of east Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, bragged about aiding in Trump-Russia communications, and flaunted her cellphone case featuring a shirtless Putin on a horse.

She maintained a top grade-point average- a fact prosecutors have attributed to Erickson helping her with her homework. She has adamantly denied that, arguing the notion that she would need a man’s help academically is sexist.

He also may have helped her paying off invoices with tainted fund. Documents in Erickson’s recent hoax indictment indicates he cut a check for more than $20,000 to American University in 2017, while Butina was a student there.

All the while she was making appearances with Erickson on the DC party circuit, and expanding contacts with like-minded republicans, including some quarterly NRA confabs, according to informants, and using her connections in the handgun world-wide to bridge cultural divides.

In many ways, Butina’s stated objective of pushing grease-gun privileges for the common man in Putin’s Russia was a surprising, if not outright laughably fruitless cause.

And it was one that surely heightened the eyebrow of Russia protection expert J Michael Waller when, at a DC party in the winter of 2015-16, his old acquaintance, Erickson, made an entryway with Butina on his arm.

Erickson introduced the young woman enthusiastically as” a president of a pro-gun-rights move in Russia ,” Waller recently recalled in an interview with the Guardian, brag of her ties to” some very wealthy Russians “.

Gun advocacy attempts weren’t the only thing the two were collaborating on. In February 2016, Butina and Erickson incorporated the company, Bridges LLC, together in South Dakota, though the nature of its business activities were unclear. Erickson in a 2017 interview said the LLC was set up to help Butina fund her studies if needed, but South Dakota has no the recording of any activities.

And then there was the courting of political candidates.


Trump wasn’t the only Republican presidential nominee she mingled with and courted, but he was the one who fasten, and the person who is from mid-2 015 and on exhibited a friendly disposition toward Russia.

She played reporter at a Trump press conference early in Nevada in 2015, requesting the newly-declared presidential candidate if he’d enforce “damaging” sanctions against her home country.( Trump’s responds was almost comically friendly:” Ah, Putin !” he interrupted, when Butina determined herself as inspecting from Russia.” I don’t think you’d need international sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well .”)

Butina’s endeavours weren’t always fruitful: an attempt to interview a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a’ academy programme’ while she was a student at American, for example, fell flat. But more often than not, she enjoyed success.

She had help from Erickson, who in May of 2016 was busy seeking to facilitate meetings between Torshin and Trump ahead of the annual NRA meeting in Louisville Kentucky, describing Torshin as ” Putin’s emissary “.~ ATAGEND The summon was declined; but Torshin did chat with Trump Jr briefly at a dinner during the NRA convention which dedicated an early endorsement to Trump who benefited mightily from the record $30 m the NRA spent on his behalf.

In the weeks ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Butina tried to keep a low profile. But after Trump was elected, she couldn’t contain her exuberance, attending an inaugural ball and even sending a selfie to Torshin from her roost by the US Capitol on the day Trump was inaugurated.” You’re a adventurer daughter! What can I say !” Torshin wrote back. She answered:” Good teachers !”

Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin in 2012. Photograph: Pavel Ptitsin/ AP

In another content, Torshin gushed that she had “upstaged” Anna Chapman, another auburn-haired Russian intelligence agent who was arrested in New York in 2010 as one of the purposes of a secret agent swap.

That same month Butina celebrated her birthday to great excess, hosting a” Stars and Tsars” -themed dres party in Cleveland Park’s Cafe Deluxe, where she was Empress Alexandra to Erickson’s Rasputin, as the Daily Beast would report.

So it must have felt a world-wide away when, in July of 2018, two days after a dozen Russian cyber-agents were indicted for hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016, she was arrested so unceremoniously amid the boxes of an suite she’d hoped to flee with a move to South Dakota with Erickson who, it turns out, may have been mulling his own offer to work for Russian intelligence.

A separate FBI raid on Erickson’s South Dakota dwelling, according to ABC News, encountered a handwritten had pointed out that read,” How aimed at addressing FSB offer of employment ?” referring to the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor organization to the KGB.

Amid it all, Putin, the three men Butina had been working for years to assistance, was a world-wide away-specifically, he was meeting in July of 2018 in Helsinki with Trump. And he was about- publicly at least- to mete out a lesson in the brutal realities of covert work.

And when asked about Butina, Putin denied any knowledge of her actuality. ” She’s facing 15 times in prison. For what ?” he would say in the wake of her arrest.” When I heard that something was happening to her […] I started by asking all our secret services boss: who is she? Nobody knew nothing about her !”

Meanwhile the man Butina claimed to love is now appearing down the proverbial barrel.


Until about a month ago , Erickson was still visiting Butina as often as twice a few weeks, as well as speaking with her on the phone, according to a source familiar with its consideration of this matter. But in the recent months, since Erickson’s begun to face his own accusations, their contacts have slackened to a trickle.

They can’t talk about the occurrence because meetings are recorded, but even without the technological impediments, and particularly in view of Butina’s cooperation following her plea handled in December, the breath between them seems to have gotten heavier.

And the difficulties are ever expanding.

Erickson’s February indictment involving the alleged defrauding of various Dakota investors had been cast by lawyers as unrelated to the Butina foreign agent case.

But then, perhaps it’s still noteworthy that several checks appearing in the indictment were made out to a recipient identified only by their initials: “MB.”

Additional reporting by David Taylor

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