The relationship between the National Rifle Association and Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia has mainly been seen as an effort to elect Donald Trump president, but the relationship dates back to at least 2010 and was cemented around the business of selling guns.
The NRA’s first known contact with the Russians was in 2010, when the organization partnered with an American gunmaker, Arsenal, Inc., and legendary Russian gun designer Mikhail Kalashnikov to raise money for the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). Kalashnikov signed 500 silver- and gold-plated AK-74 assault rifles manufactured by Arsenal that were sold to American civilians for a hefty sum ($3,500 for silver, $5,000 for gold). Total net for the NRA-ILA: $1.9 million.
The figure of Mikhail Kalashnikov, legendary tank commander and gunnmaker, helped the Russians bridge a significant cultural divide with NRA leaders and their faithful. But the company founded in the Hero of the Motherland’s name was not faring well. Kalashnikov Concern JSC (KC), the largest arms manufacturer in Russia, failed to turn a profit from 2007–2014. KC turned to exports to change its fortunes, and met with success. Russia was eager to tap the U.S. gun market with its historically strong consumer demand.
In 2011 Kalashnikov Concern formed a shell company in Tullytown, Pennsylvania, the Russian Weapons Company (RWC). A manager with RWC, Michael Tiraturian, is a longtime business associate and friend of Alexey Krivoruchko, the CEO and majority shareholder of Kalashnikov Concern. RWC imported Saiga rifles and shotguns (AK-47s and variants) from KC in Russia until the latter was sanctioned in July 2014 for its role in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
NRA officials should have been happy. A foreign competitor for the U.S. gun manufacturers which fund the organization had been removed from the picture. Instead, the gun lobby group went to bat for Kalashnikov Concern and condemned American sanctions against the company. In an angry statement, the NRA praised KC’s “well-regarded AK-pattern rifles that have become popular among American gun owners” and promised to “continue to look for opportunities to block the Obama administration’s anti-gun agenda whether through the legal, legislative or political arenas.” Tough talk from the NRA, but KC’s business exporting AK-47s to the U.S. was over.
The Russians didn’t give up. Instead, they hatched a plan to move their operation to Pompano Beach, Florida and sell semiautomatic weapons under a new name: Kalashnikov USA. The Russian Weapons Company even applied to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) for $162,000 in state, county and local tax breaks for Kalashnikov USA. On its application, RWC admitted Kalashnikov USA would be importing parts from Kalashnikov Concern in Russia, a violation of U.S. sanctions.
Rather than reporting RWC’s application to the U.S. Department of Treasury, Governor Rick Scott’s administration gave it a secret code name (Project 762) and approved it. It’s unknown if Scott discussed Kalashnikov USA with NRA leaders, but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t. Allowing a Russian company to start manufacturing AK-47s in powerful NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer’s backyard without her full consent would be a dangerous proposition for an ambitious Republican governor.
Two months after Kalashnikov USA got its incentives package, the NRA sent a delegation (including gun manufacturer Pete Brownell and high-dollar donors) to Moscow to meet with the (then) deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin. The Russians filmed the NRA leaders touring the facilities of ORSIS, a sniper rifle manufacturer with close ties to Rogozin.
Back in the states, the Russian Weapons Company suddenly had its incentives package for Kalashnikov USA revoked by the Scott administration in 2017. This was after the Florida DEO had repeatedly gone to bat for Kalashnikov USA and renegotiated agreements with county officials when the company couldn’t meet the job-creation promises on its original application. This didn’t stop Kalashnikov USA from doing business. however. The shell company continues to sell semiautomatic assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols “made” at its Pompano Beach plant.
How much of the manufacturing, assembly, and testing for these firearms is actually being done by Kalashnikov Concern in Russia? That is a question finally being asked by authorities. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami and the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department (per the request of Congressman Ted Deutsch) have launched investigations into Kalashnikov USA and their January 2015 application with DEO.
Kalashnikov Concern is not going to relinquish the American gun market until forced to, and the Russians will continue to exploit their NRA contacts to promote arms business. The end-date on their mutual project in Donald Trump is uncertain, but the NRA and Russia will always have gun-running to bind them.