1) Alexander Torshin is no low-level Russian bureaucrat. The man that Russian president Vladimir Putin sent to the United States nearly a decade ago to broker a relationship with the National Rifle Association is no average government official. Since 2001, Alexander Torshin has been one of Putin’s most loyal lieutenants; a man Putin trusts with the most politically sensitive of tasks.
Now the deputy governor of the central bank of Russia, Torshin started out as a legislator in Putin’s United Russia party. He served in the upper house of the Russian parliament from 2001 to 2015, acting as chairman for four months in 2011. During this period he did an important favor for Putin.
On September 1, 2004 more than 30 armed Ingush and Chechen militants occupied School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia, an autonomous Russian republic in the North Caucasus region. The militants took 1,100 hostages, including 777 children. The operation was ordered by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who demanded Putin recognize the independence of Chechnya, another Russian republic. Basayev also called on the Russian military to withdraw from Chechnya.
Putin’s response was quick and violent. On the third day of the siege, Russian security forces stormed the school using tanks, incendiary rockets and other heavy weapons. At least 330 hostages were killed in the ensuing battle with militants, including 186 children. Many more innocents were wounded and reported missing. The backlash was immediate, with critics questioning the competence of the Kremlin.
Putin needed a friend and turned to Torshin, who led a parliamentary commission investigation into the events at Beslan. The commission’s final report in 2006 absolved the Russian government of any responsibility for the grotesque number of casualties produced by the siege. Blame was pinned instead on local law enforcement officials, who were indicted on negligence charges. A 2017 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights made a different determination: The Russian military had used excessive lethal force and violated the “right to life” of the school faculty and student body in Beslan.
Torshin has also been trusted with Putin’s financial business, namely the management of the Taganskaya mafia in Moscow. Torshin is “godfather” to Taganskaya mafia boss Alexander Romanov, and has assisted him in laundering money through banks and properties in Spain.
When then-NRA president David Keene met Torshin in 2011, welcoming him with open arms into the NRA’s inner circle, he was making common cause with one of the most dangerous men in Russia. Keene and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre must have known this— it was public knowledge.
Putin gave Torshin the responsibility of penetrating not just the NRA, but the broader Republican establishment in the United States (i.e., National Prayer Breakfast, Sarah Palin, Members of Congress like Dana Rohrabacher, Thomas Massie, etc.).
By 2015, Putin’s loyal lieutenant was ready for his next promotion. The Russian president appointed Torshin to his position at the central bank. Now Torshin wasn’t just managing mob funds, he was helping to launder money for the Russian oligarchy as well.
2) The NRA-Russia partnership did not begin as a campaign to elect Donald Trump. In 2011, when Alexander Torshin first befriended then-NRA president David Keene and became a regular face at the NRA’s annual meetings in the United States, Donald Trump as President wasn’t even a thought in Americans’ minds. The New York businessman was just wrapping up his six-year run on “The Apprentice” reality TV show and wasn’t seriously regarded as a presidential contender.
The focus of the NRA-Russia partnership early on was on gun business. The two parties collaborated on the auction of high-priced, gold- and silver-plated AK-74s autographed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. Later, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the NRA worked to eliminate U.S. sanctions against imports of semi-automatic rifles from the Kalashnikov Concern.
The Russians were also trying to influence powerful Republicans by interacting with the NRA, but when the 2016 presidential primary process began in earnest, the Kremlin’s support initially went to Republican candidate Scott Walker (then governor of Wisconsin). The Russians only turned their attention to candidate Donald Trump when he eclipsed Walker in the Republican presidential primary polls in the latter half of 2015. Both men were viewed as targets of opportunity by Torshin and his “assistant” Maria Butina.
3) There is no justification whatsoever for a pro-gun alliance with either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. When the NRA endorsed Donald Trump for President on May 20, 2016 —the earliest such endorsement ever by the group — there was no basis for doing so in terms of the New York businessman’s record on guns.
Trump had vocally supported the federal Assault Weapons Ban, waiting periods for gun purchases, and efforts to deny gun sales to suspected terrorists, among other gun control policies. The issue was never ideological for him, but rather political. Trump shares little in common with the ardent pro-gun figures who routinely speak at NRA conventions like former sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., Senator Ted Cruz, Ted Nugent, etc.
Trump only embraced the NRA’s “gun rights” agenda when he decided to campaign for higher office as a Republican. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has never contemplated weakening gun laws.
Russia has comprehensive and strict gun laws. Citizens are prohibited from owning handguns or semiautomatic weapons. All long guns must be licensed and registered with the federal government. Only 9% of Russians own a firearm.
Yet, after years of working with Putin’s government, not a single NRA leader has criticized Russia’s tough gun laws or called for their repeal. So much for individual liberty…
If it’s not guns that binds the NRA to Russia, then what ideological kinship do they share? I like Jonathan Chait’s explanation in New Yorker magazine: “A strand of violence-obsessed authoritarian pan-European nationalism.”
From 1977 to 2016, the NRA regularly counseled its members to stockpile firearms in preparation for insurrection against a “tyrannical” federal government. Now the NRA embraces authoritarian government under presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Today’s NRA is a violent, white supremacist organization bent on retaining societal privilege for white men with zero concern for the survival of democratic institutions and traditions. Maybe this was the organization’s true face all along.
4) The NRA is not the only pro-gun group Russia has penetrated. Alan Gottlieb, the president of the Seattle-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), has also flown to Russia to meet with Alexander Torshin & Co. SAF is a bit player in federal lobbying, but they do significant work in the courts — litigating against existing gun laws across the board at the federal, state and local level.
Alexander Torshin and his enigmatic “assistant” Maria Butina have wooed Gottlieb in the States, taking the pro-gun leader and his wife out to dinner and giving them gifts that made it clear research had been done (“exotic fabric for Gottlieb’s wife, a needlepoint enthusiast, and for Gottlieb, commemorative stamps that Torshin received as a member of the Russian legislature”).
“They wanted to keep communications open and form friendships,” Alan Gottlieb told the Washington Post.
5) The media has blown it. On Thursday, when McClatchy published the blockbuster revelation that the FBI is investigating the NRA for using laundered Russian money to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, the American public acted as if the story of the NRA-Russia relationship had just “broke.”
In truth, the Russians have made few if any efforts to cover their tracks during their influence operation inside the NRA. From the outset, Alexander Torshin and his “assistant” Maria Butina posted photos online with Keene, LaPierre and other NRA officials. The NRA also exercised little discretion. NRA leaders including David Keene, Jim Porter, and Sandy Froman made Torshin and Butina “special guests” at the NRA’s annual meeting and feted them in front of the group’s members and donors.
Keene, the opinion page editor at the Washington Times, even published an op-ed by Alexander Torshin in which the Putin lieutenant bragged about attending the NRA’s annual meeting and being an NRA Life Member!
Also visible was the NRA’s trip to Moscow in December 2015. Radical Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke, Jr. was part of the NRA delegation and tweeted out photos of the trip for the world to see. Russian deputy defense minister Dmitry Rogozin met with the delegation and did the same.
Yet, with all this smoke suggesting a towering inferno, the American media has hardly touched the NRA-Russia story.
There are exceptions that need to be recognized, journalists who have done great work and dug out the critical facts we have so far in the story: Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias of TIME; Esteban Duarte, Henry Meyer, and Evgenia Pismennaya of Bloomberg; Nicholas Fandos, Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg, and Adam Goldman of the New York Times; Tim Mak of the Daily Beast; Sam Thielman at Talking Points Memo; and others.
6) The NRA is a repeat offender. If it turns out the NRA laundered Russian money for use in America’s 2016 election (and perhaps others), that would be a serious crime. The gun lobby has a pattern of violating campaign finance laws that goes back many years. For example, CREW found the NRA systematically underreports its political spending at the federal level (by $33.5 million in just six years from 2008–2013).
The NRA also likes to move money illicitly. The organization has done this by soliciting contributions for its “social welfare” organization, the NRA-ILA, and giving that money to its PAC, the NRA Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF).
At the state level, the NRA had to dissolve its Rhode Island PAC after graduate student Sam Bell discovered it took illegal contributions from the group’s federal PAC. In Connecticut, the NRA was caught using its federal PAC to fund contributions to state-level candidates.
If Vladimir Putin was looking for an American shell to launder Russian money in order to influence U.S. elections, the NRA would be an obvious suitor.
A comprehensive timeline of the NRA-Russia relationship can be viewed here.