6 Insights into the NRA-Russia Relationship
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 has trusted with the most politically and financially sensitive of tasks.
Torshin has long been a leading figure in Putin’s United Russia party. He served in the upper house of the Russian parliament from 2001 to 2015, acting as chairman in that chamber for four months in 2011. It was following the disastrous 2004 school siege in Beslan that Torshin first publicly demonstrated his willingness to go to the wall for Putin, even if that meant denying facts and dishonoring victims.The Beslan siege began on September 1, 2004 when 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 at the school, including 777 children. They were carrying out orders from Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who demanded that Putin recognize the independence of Chechnya, another federal republic of Russia. Basayev also called on all Russian military personnel 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. Critics questioned the very competence of the Kremlin. Putin needed a friend and he turned to Torshin, who led a parliamentary commission investigation into the incident. The commission’s final report in 2006 whitewashed the Russian government’s response to the school takeover, pinning the blame instead on local law enforcement officials, who were tried in court on negligence charges. No other official at any level faced consequences for the botched raid.
Torshin’s political stagecraft in servant of an autocrat was criticized around the globe. In a 2017 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights determined that Russia had used excessive lethal force in Beslan and violated the “right to life” of the school faculty and student body.
Meanwhile, Torshin was also being 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 (among other places, undoubtedly).
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 knew this — it was public knowledge.
Putin gave Torshin the responsibility of penetrating not just the NRA, but also the broader Republican establishment in the United States (i.e., National Prayer Breakfast, Dana Rohrabacher, Thomas Massie, etc.). The list of Torshin’s known targets will undoubtedly continue to expand as the FBI and other parties investigate his activities.
As Torshin went about this task, he didn’t exactly try to cover his tracks. Instead, he exhibited swagger from the outset, publicly documenting his interactions with Keene and other NRA officials at every step.
By 2015, Putin’s loyal lieutenant was ready for his next promotion. Putin appointed Torshin head of Russia’s Central Bank. Now Torshin wasn’t just managing mob money, he was in charge of money laundering for the Russian oligarchy as a whole.
That type of experience might come in handy if you were, say, attempting to move illegal, dark money to influence elections in the United States.
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 high-profile NRA meetings in the United States, Donald Trump as president wasn’t even a thought in Americans’ minds. At that point, Trump was just wrapping up his six-year run on “The Apprentice” reality TV show. [This was also three years before Russia invaded Ukraine, in 2014.]
Torshin’s penetration of the NRA was certainly the product of long-term planning by Vladimir Putin; a bold campaign to befriend and compromise Republican officials in the United States at the highest levels of power; in the interest of systematically degrading America’s power, influence, and democratic institutions.
The campaign to elect Donald Trump president was just the latest mutual project of Putin’s government and the NRA — albeit one that has paid off handsomely to date despite its considerable risks. Prior to this venture, the two parties worked on eliminating U.S. sanctions against exports of Kalashnikov rifles after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Think big. The platform for cooperation between the NRA and Russia is far broader than any of these individual projects. When all is said and done, I believe we will trace Russian money laundered through the NRA to Republican politicians and organizations nationwide.
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 past record on guns. Trump had previously 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 has never been ideological for him — he just looks to see which way the political winds are blowing and adjusts accordingly. Trump shares little in common with the ardent pro-gun figures who regularly speak at NRA conventions, like former sheriff David A. Clarke, Jr., Senator Ted Cruz, Ted Nugent, etc.
At least Trump rhetorically embraces loose gun laws as president. The same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin.
Russia has strict gun control. 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. Russia’s gun laws are very popular among the country’s people.
And yet, after at least seven years of working with Putin’s government, not a single NRA leader has criticized Russia’s tough gun laws, or called for them to be repealed.
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 constantly counseled its members to stockpile firearms in preparation for insurrection against the federal government. It’s shocking how quickly the NRA has now embraced fascism — forging a strong alliance with one of the world’s most ruthless dictators and demonstrating zero discomfort with the Trump administration’s authoritarian style of governing. Ideologically, the NRA now resembles a violent, white supremacist organization bent on retaining societal privilege for white men with no concern for the survival of democratic institutions.
Are Putin, Torshin, Rogozin, etc. to credit for further radicalizing the NRA? Or was the Republican Party in the United States on a glide path to fascism regardless?
One last thing to consider: Perhaps the NRA was more comfortable about Donald Trump’s squishy views on gun control because Keene, LaPierre knew their partners in the Kremlin had sufficient intelligence to compromise the new president a million times over should he fail a required litmus test.
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.
Torshin and his enigmatic assistant Maria Butina have also wooed Gottlieb in the States, taking the pro-gun leader and his wife out for 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,” Gottlieb told the Washington Post.
It will be interesting to see if Torshin has reached out to Larry and Erich Pratt at Gun Owners of America, two men who — unlike Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox at the NRA — actually believe in the neo-fascist ideology they promote.
5) The media blew 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 relationship has been public since at least 2013, when Alexander Torshin attended his first of four NRA annual meetings in a row: in Houston, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Louisville. Torshin and his assistant Maria Butina were frequently deemed “special guests” at these meetings by NRA leaders including David Keene, Jim Porter, and Sandy Froman.
Torshin proudly tweeted photos of himself, Butina and NRA leaders during the meetings. Keene, who is also the opinion page editor at the Washington Times, even published an op-ed by Torshin in which the Putin lieutenant bragged about attending the NRA’s annual meeting and his status as an NRA Life Member!
NRA leaders’ excursions to Moscow were no less visible. No attempt was made to hide anything. David Clarke, Jr., who was part of the December 2015 NRA delegation, tweeted out photos of the trip for all to see. As did Russian defense minister Dmitry Rogozin.
And yet, with all this smoke suggesting a towering inferno, the media has hardly touched the NRA-Russia story.
There are exceptions that need to be recognized, journalists who have dug out the critical facts we have so far on 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.
Hopefully, reporters are now waking up to the fact that the NRA is at the center of Russian attempts to launder and move money here in the United States. This story is incredibly important and demands more attention.
6) The NRA is a repeat offender. If it turns out the NRA laundered money for the Russians to use in America’s elections, that would be a very serious crime. But it’s not like the NRA has shown respect for campaign finance laws in the past.
CREW found that the NRA systematically underreports its political spending at the federal level, by $33.5 million in just six years from 2008–2013, for example.
The NRA also likes to illegally move money between its financial entities. For example, it has done this by soliciting contributions for its “social welfare” organization, the NRA-ILA, and giving that money to its own PAC, the NRA Political Victory Fund.
The situation is similar at the state level. The NRA had to dissolve its Rhode Island PAC after activist Sam Bell discovered it took illegal contributions from the NRA’s federal PAC. Ditto for Connecticut, where the NRA was caught using its federal political action committee to fund contributions to state-level candidates, a violation of state law.
God knows what we’d find if we could ever do a systemic audit of their finances. But you can imagine. The point is that if you’re Alexander Torshin and you’re looking for someone to run money with in the States, the NRA is an obvious suitor.
A comprehensive timeline of the NRA-Russia relationship can be viewed here.