Why an Accused Russian Agent Visited a Public School, University, and Summer Camp in South Dakota
More than three years before her arrest on charges of being a Russian secret agent, Maria Butina gave a lecture to a dozen pizza-munching students in a setting far removed from the country’s political world: a public university in Vermillion, South Dakota. .
The following month, she spoke to about 20 business-minded students at a public high school in Sioux Falls. And that summer, she spoke to a crowd of teenagers at a politically-oriented summer camp hosted by Republicans in South Dakota.
The incidents were documented in snatches at the time – on a college flyer, in an assessment posted to social media by a local Republican, and on Butina’s own social media profiles. They are under further scrutiny after federal authorities arrested Butina this week and accused her of acting on behalf of the Russian government in a campaign to influence US policy.
While much of the attention paid to the accused spy has been focused on her efforts to cultivate relationships within Republican-oriented groups like the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference, these incidents, far removed from the national political sphere and its nodes of power, provide a window into the years of planning and attention to detail that underpin what investigators say is the Butina campaign.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, Butina was under the leadership of a senior Russian government official who trained her to win “the battle for the future” and “not to burn out (fall) prematurely” .
David Gomez, a retired FBI counterintelligence expert, said in an interview that Butina’s presence at uncrowded events in a Low-Profile State in 2015 was likely part of an effort to bolster her credibility.
“This is to increase his good faith, his acceptability and his track record,” he said. “If you’re an influencer you do it so you can brag about it on your resume, you’re trying to increase your abilities for someone with more power by taking a track record.”
Butina’s work to forge relationships with conservative officials began years before the 2016 election. In 2013, she and Alexander Torshin, a well-connected Russian senator from Vladimir Putin’s party who fits the description of the official named in the ‘affidavit, NRA President David Keene and other gun enthusiasts invited to Moscow for a meeting hosted by the non-profit gun rights organization. she had founded the Right to Carry Arms.
Representatives from South Dakota’s university, school and summer camp told The Post that all three events were organized with the help of Paul Erickson, a Republican state official who corresponds to a description of an American described in court documents as someone who helped introduce Butina. to powerful political figures “with the aim of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation”.
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she was romantically involved with the agent, whom she met in Moscow, people familiar with the matter told The Post.
Erickson, who has not been charged, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
A poster for Butina’s April 2015 appearance at the University of South Dakota shows a photo of her looking upward ideally and touting her credentials as a gun rights activist. Michelle Cwach said in an email to The Post on Tuesday that the conference was sponsored by a center in the school’s political science department as well as two groups of students.
âThe event was a pizza breakfast with about a dozen students in attendance,â said a statement she distributed. “The subject under consideration was the right to bear arms in Russia.”
Ben Schumacher, spokesperson for the Sioux Falls School District, said in an email that Butina spoke to about 20 high school students at Career and Technical Education Academy about women and entrepreneurship, including her “path to become the owner / operator of their own business “. Business.”
âThere was no political discussion,â Schumacher said.
This event took place because Erickson had volunteered to teach business-oriented classes with the school, Schumacher said.
Butina’s appearance that summer at the South Dakota Republican Teen Camp was immortalized in photographs posted to social media and in a tweet from one of the camp’s leaders, Dusty Johnson.
âMaria Butina was amazing at Camp TARS in South Dakota,â wrote Johnson, who is now the Republican candidate in an open race for the state’s sole Congressional seat. “The kids loved his stories of working for freedom in Russia.”
The weeklong camp was held in the Black Hills mountain range, according to leader Argus of Sioux Falls.
Johnson’s campaign manager, Will D. Mortenson, told the Post that Erickson was at the center of Butina’s appearance at the camp, saying the GOP agent had reached out to present her as a ” freedom âwhich repelled the Putin regime.
Mortenson said Butina spoke to the group of students – around 50 according to the photos – for 20 minutes about gun rights and her work as a civil liberties advocate.
The South Dakota Democratic Party quickly seized on the disclosure after Butina’s arrest, sharing Johnson’s tweet with news of his indictment.
“The SDGOP owes the people of South Dakota a detailed explanation of how Ms. Butina came to speak out in their Republican teenage camp at the same time as she began her efforts to infiltrate and influence American political organizations, and what relationship, if any, she has with their organization or any of their candidates and elected officials, “the organization said in a statement. âAt the very least, the Republicans of South Dakota have acted as unwitting accomplices of the Russian government in their efforts to influence the politics and governance of our country. This is a catastrophic failure at the highest levels of their party organization and, at a minimum, raises serious questions about the judgment and competence of the SDGOP. “
Mortenson said Johnson researched Butina’s background and was partially influenced by her appearance at the University of South Dakota.
âMs. Butina posed as a freedom fighter, fighting against the oppression of the Putin regime,â Johnson said in a statement released by Mortenson. “Instead, she looks like she’s a con artist and a liar.”
Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, did not respond to a request for comment, but told the Post earlier that Butina is a political student looking to network with Americans, not a Russian agent.
“She intends to vigorously defend her rights and looks forward to clearing her name,” he said in a statement.
Butina, who graduated from the American University of Washington in May, was preparing to leave for South Dakota last weekend when the FBI arrested her.
This article was written by Eli Rosenberg, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig, all reporters for The Washington Post.