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Maria Got a Gun: How Russia's deputy central banker infiltrated his assistant into GOP and what he did in the Taganskaya gang

On July 15, the U.S. authorities arrested Maria Butina, an associate of Alexander Torshin, deputy chairman of the Bank of Russia and ex-senator. On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted her on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent (punishable with a prison sentence of up to 10 years). According to the criminal complaint lodged by the FBI, Butina and Torshin secured approval from a member of «the Russian president's executive office» for establishing a back channel of communication between the Kremlin and the Republicans. The initial contact was made through the NRA, and possibly – the investigators are looking into it –it was through this association that Russia funded Trump's election campaign. This story is particularly intriguing in view of the fact that, while «establishing communication with the Republicans,» Torshin barely escaped arrest in Spain for laundering the Taganskaya gang's money. The Spanish investigators revealed to The Insider many noteworthy details about Torshin's involvement in the gang, and now we are offering an overview of the most eye-catching episodes.


Team Trump infiltration timeline

In the latest U. S. presidential campaign, the NRA (National Rifle Association) set a new record for «dark money» fundraising (i. e. money of unclear origins), procuring a total of $33 million donated by «independent contributors,» which is three times the amount the NRA spent to support Mitt Romney during the previous campaign.  It was the NRA that Torshin and Butina chose as the entry point to Trump's campaign team. The pair's infiltration of the NRA itself is a captivating story. Here is how it happened.

In 2011, Attorney G. Kline Preston introduced Torshin to David Keene, the then head of the NRA. Later that year, Preston came as an observer to the Russian parliamentary election and concluded it was absolutely fair. By contrast, when Torshin was observing the American election in 2012, he «detected a number of violations,» pointing out that campaigning had been taking place too close to polling stations. It was then that he rendered a visit to the NRA's headquarters in Washington, D. C.:

In May 2013, Torshin attended an NRA convention to watch the addresses by future Republican presidential candidates – Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum. Later that year, NRA president David Keene took part in a conference organized by Pravo Na Oruzhiye («Right to Bear Arms») – a Russian social organization headed by Torshin's assistant, Maria Butina.

Butina with presidential candidate Rick Santorum

The primary source of information about Torshin's attempts to put the Kremlin in touch with the Republicans is the data obtained from surveillance of Butina. FBI special agent Kevin Helson wrote in a supporting affidavit to the criminal complaint against Butina, which was released at the website of the U. S. Department of Justice, that his testimony was based on the searches of two premises, surveillance, and examination of documents, including electronic items that had been obtained from Butina's laptop and phone.

In 2014, Butina invited Paul Erickson, an NRA and Republican Party official, to give a presentation in Moscow. Soon 56-year-old Erickson started a relationship with Butina, who was 29, and introduced her to many other high-profile Republicans and NRA members. However, as the FBI points out, this relationship was more of a business necessity for Butina. For instance, she tried to bed another official, whose name is not revealed, in return for a post in an organization (presumably, the NRA). The FBI also states that she bemoaned having to live with Erickson in one of the letters and spoke of him with disdain.

Butina and her boyfriend Paul Erickson in 2013

Interestingly, at that period, Butina positioned herself as an activist who aimed to reshape gun control in Russia, which gave her access to many other activists and opposition members. Alexei Navalny even suggested nominating her to the Civic Chamber (like Butina, he supports free bearing of arms). This must have been the reason why her activities drew the Presidential Executive Office's attention; Timur Prokopenko, deputy head of the Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate tasked pro-government blogger Kristina Potupchik with writing an exposé on Butina.

In 2015, Putin appointed Torshin Deputy Chairman of the Bank of Russia. About the same time, Torshin financed the Moscow visit of high-profile NRA representatives and David Clarke, a Fox News anchor, who met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister at the time. Formally, the meeting was organized by Maria Butina's Pravo Na Oruzhiye.

In the same year of 2015, Butina started a master's course at the American University in Washington, D. C. As follows from the intercepted correspondence between Butina and Erickson, the MA course was just a means of getting a student visa. The same correspondence reveals that Butina kept asking Erickson for help with her university assignments and examination questions. She did attend classes, though.

Butina and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre

On March 24, 2015, Butina sent a message to Erickson titled «Pozner #2» (presumably, a reference to Vladimir Pozner, who communicated the Soviet view of the world to the American audience during his work at the Soviet television). The message had an attachment – a project file. The original had been in Russian, so Butina sent a Google-translated version to save time. Apparently, the project had been addressed to someone who did not speak English. Butina requested advice from Erickson before sending the final version to someone. The project said that the Republican Party was the most likely winner in the election, and, despite their notoriously aggressive foreign policy – especially in respect of Russia – the election was a good opportunity for a conversation about a more constructive relationship with Russia. In the same message, Butina wrote that she attended NRA events and was frequently introduced as «a representative of Russia's informal diplomacy.» Butina even had a project budget – $125,000 for further participation in every pre-election Republican conference.

In February 2016, Butina and Erickson co-founded a company, Bridges, LLC. Erickson subsequently told the press that the company's purpose was to finance Butina's studies in America, but that did not sound plausible. Around that time, Torshin posted a Tweet: «Maria Butina is in the USA now. She writes that D. Trump (NRA member) is firmly in favor of cooperation with Russia.» (Comment on link to «Trump and Bush disagree on Russia.»)

In another message, Butina reported that she had secured approval from a representative of the Russian president's Executive Office for their «Russo-American project.» «All we needed was Putin's approval. The rest is technicalities,» she wrote. She even started preparing Putin's visit to the following National Prayer Breakfast in 2017, claiming that Torshin had invited the President to the event and the latter had not said «no.» Butina declared the conditions necessary for Putin's presence, namely participation of other dignitaries and a personal invitation from the U. S. President. The organizer of the Breakfast replied that Butina had 10 seats booked in her name for the 2017 event anyway.

"All we needed was Putin's approval. The rest is technicalities."

In May 2016, Torshin hoped to approach Trump at the NRA annual meeting in Louisville, but he only succeeded in meeting Donald Trump Jr. In one of the messages from back then, Torshin wrote that he had successfully established a back channel of communication between the Kremlin and Republican Party leaders through the NRA.

On June 9, 2016 (peculiarly coinciding with Natalia Veselnitskaya's famous meeting with Trump campaign officials), American conservative activist Rick Clay wrote to Trump's associate Rick Dearborn, conveying Torshin's request for an informal meeting with Trump to discuss «common Christian values.» The subject of the letter contained «Kremlin connections.» On that occasion, Team Trump rejected the request.

A month later, Butina finally had her shot at approaching Donald Trump: at FreedomFest, a libertarian conference in Las Vegas, she asked him about lifting anti-Russian sanctions. (Trump promised to work toward closer relations with Putin.)

In November 2016, Butina openly admitted participating in Trump's campaign as an expert on relations with Russia. For instance, she said as much at a fancy-dress party on the occasion of her birthday, where she was dressed as the last Russian empress, Alexandra Fedorovna (whereas her boyfriend Paul Erickson, dressed as Rasputin to match her choice of costume, revealed that he was on Trump's presidential transition team). Svetlana Savranskaya, one of Butina's professors at the American University, says that Butina frequently mentioned working for Trump's campaign in class.

In February 2017, Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House as part of the Russian delegation. According to Butina, Torshin was to meet with Trump, but the meeting had been canceled at the last moment, so he met with Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Thomas Massie instead. According to Glenn Simpson, head of Fusion GPS, Trump canceled the meeting after one of his advisors pointed out to Torshin's murky past (read on for details about Torshin's organized crime connections).

In July 2018, Butina started transferring her assets to Russian accounts. When the FBI knocked on her door with an arrest warrant, her suitcases had been partly packed, and she had left a note for her landlord, notifying them that her lease expired on July 31. It is not entirely clear whether she intended to return to Russia or to move in with Erickson in South Dakota.

Ties to the Russian intelligence and oligarchs

The FBI asserts that Butina worked in close cooperation with the Russian intelligence. First, her documents contained contacts of four FSB officers. Second, in the course of surveillance, FBI agents witnessed Butina's meeting with a Russian intelligence officer who worked undercover as a diplomat. The meeting took place a few weeks prior to his expulsion from the USA in March 2018 (along with the 60 diplomats removed from the USA in response to the Skripals' poisoning in the UK).

The meeting with a Russian intelligence officer

Once the American press started paying attention to Maria's activities, Torshin compared Butina to Russian spy Anna Chapman in their correspondence, to which she replied: «Interestingly, only the liberal Russian media translated the article. <...> They must be covering up for me back at home.» Torshin said it could have been expected, but Butina pointed out: «What matters is that we are apparently out of bounds. I take it as a good sign.» Torshin: «For now, it's true, but if something changes, we're bound to end up on the list of agents of influence.» Butina: "I'd rather lie low for now. For a while. You must have gotten into trouble because of the stupid leak? I'm sorry..."

The FBI also exposed Butina's ties to Russian oligarchs, in particular, a billionaire, whose name is left out of the report but whom she called «a sponsor» and contacted through Twitter personal messages. The description leads us to believe this billionaire is Gleb Fetisov, Torshin's colleague on one of the Federation Council's committees and a Twitter user (The Insider has already mentioned him in an investigation). To finance her stay in the U. S., Butina appealed to another Russian businessman, whose identity is not revealed either.

«They called him 'godfather'»: Torshin's ties to the Taganskaya gang and the FSB

While investigating Butina's case, the FBI requested data on Torshin from the Spanish law enforcement. On August 21, 2013, when Butina's infiltration of the NRA was at a nascent stage, Torshin was to attend the birthday party of his friend and associate Alexander Romanov on Mallorca. Spanish policemen were already waiting for him at the airport and at the hotel to arrest him for laundering money for the Taganskaya organized crime group. However, Torshin changed his mind and never got on that plane. The Spanish cops are certain: Torshin received a warning from the Russian Prosecutor's Office, where the Spaniards had sent inquiries about Torshin and the Taganskaya gang.

As for Romanov, he was taken into custody in December 2013 and got a prison sentence of 3 years and 9 months for money laundering and document falsification, along with a fine of 4,244,000 euros (as ruled by the District Court of the Balearic Islands on May 26, 2016). His wife Natalia Vinogradova was sentenced to 22 months in jail. As primary evidence, the court accepted the instance of money laundering by investing in the purchase of the Mar y Pins hotel in Palma de Mallorca in the form of a fictitious loan. Eventually, the hotel was seized by the state and sold at an auction in 2017, as soon as the sentence came into effect.

Romanov met Torshin back in 1995, while working for the Bank of Russia; Deputy Chairman Torshin was his superior. However, Torshin asserts that Romanov is a personal friend of his, not a business associate. The Spanish investigators believe otherwise.

«It appears that Romanov acts as an intermediary between Torshin and the leader of the Taganskaya criminal organization, Igor Zhirnokleyev,» reads the Spanish case file studied by The Insider. Torshin is mentioned in about a dozen investigation papers. One of them is Torshin's personal profile filled out by the Spanish Civil Guard (photo, phone number, ties to organized crime and other connections). Twelve pages of detailed personal charges against Torshin, a digital file with transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations between Torshin and Romanov or between Romanov and other defendants, where they discuss orders given by «Porfiryevich» (Torshin's patronymic), and documents pertaining to the Taganskaya gang and Alexander Romanov criminal case.

Romanov's wiretapped conversations studied by The Insider make it apparent who was calling the shots. Romanov refers to Alexander Torshin as «Porfiryevch,» «boss,» and «Godfather.» The latter, however, can be explained by something other than Torshin's position in the underworld – as it turns out, he is the actual godfather of Romanov's son. On March 19, 2013, Romanov tells his Mallorcan manager, Alexander Alexandridis (another defendant in the case), that Torshin has tasked him with buying a hotel that met certain criteria. Alexandridis replies that Torshin, as a senator, cannot buy a hotel in his own name. Romanov is dismissive: «But he has grown-up children and grandchildren.» They agree on the necessity of keeping Torshin's name out of the deal.

«Torshin will be here in two months; he wants to see it with his own eyes,» Romanov tells his colleague and asks him to come up with a list of suitable Mallorcan entities. Further on, they discuss the price – 13 million euros. Having coordinated the price, Romanov tells Alexandridis that «Godfather called and showed interest but insisted on a hotel without liabilities.» When the hotel was purchased by Mar y Pins, Romanov and his wife's company, Romanov mentions in a conversation that he will take care to «Torshin's guarantees» anyway. (There is not enough context to determine the exact meaning of his words, but they might have been planning a blind trust, which the investigators have not found.)

The Taganskaya gang was formed back in the late 1980s and occupied Moscow downtown with about a hundred soldiers. The gang earned its initial capital by stealing cars and trafficking drugs and moved on to racketeering. In the 2000s, the gang specialized in illegal takeovers.

The criminals seized such enterprises as the Kristall distillery, TPK Kvant, LB Ikalto in Kaliningrad, and the Moskva department store. In the course of these activities, Romanov was even arrested in 2005 in Moscow, and other people acted on the gang's behalf in his stead. Romanov got a three-year jail sentence for fraud but was released on parole soon after. In 2010, he moved to Spain, where he founded a number of companies that took fictitious loans – to launder the Taganskaya gang's money.

On February 21, 2013, Romanov tells Torshin that he will try to send a note through him with banking details for future transfers. Romanov also says he will not rest until he solves their common problems. The Spanish investigators presume that the transfers in question are the money obtained by takeover of the Moskva department store by the Afganets company. Its beneficiaries were Romanov (who wired his 1.6 million euros to Spain) and two more Taganskaya gang leaders, Grigory Rabinovich and Igor Zhirnokleyev.

How Moskva was seized

On April 6, 2011, a group of 20 men armed with batons and non-lethal weapons entered the building of the Moskva department store in Leninsky Avenue in Moscow. One of the attackers made several shots in the air. Before the police arrived, the store security guards engaged in a fight with the attackers, which resulted in three of the participants being hospitalized with injuries. One of the attackers proclaimed himself the managing director of the Moskva company and clarified that he was the new director of the store. This public incident was yet another chapter in the Taganskaya gang's long struggle for control over the store, of which Torshin was a most active participant.

In fact, the notorious shooting of 2011 was just a brief episode in the long fight for the first Soviet department store, which was opened in 1963 as an experiment of introducing Western retail technologies and adapting them to the needs of Soviet consumers. In the 2000s, the department store survived several illegal takeovers and changed hands a number of times. The starting point was the conflict between the store's CEO, Dmitry Ulyanitsky, and Igor Zakharov, holder of an 82.2 percent stake in the store, in 2003. Zakharov fired Ulyanitsky, but the latter went to court, managed to squeeze out his adversaries from the store, and took back his position. In 2005, GIGroup, a company belonging to Grigory Rabinovich, one of the Taganskaya gang's leaders, takes hold of an 80 percent stake in the store. The company was initially brought in as a store reconstruction investor, and soon the annual shareholder meeting voted in favor of putting Rabinovich and his henchmen on the store's board of directors. In September 2006, Rabinovich was put on a national wanted list in connection with the criminal case of illegal takeover of Kristall, a distillery in Moscow.

Grigory Rabinovich, one of the Taganskaya gang's leaders

As Ulyanitsky tells Novaya Gazeta in 2007, when it was time to settle Moskva's debt, Rabinovich came short of money. The owner of GIGroup had spent the money intended for the reconstruction to pay off the company's old debts. Ulyanitsky, who had a 10-percent stake, bought Moskva's additional share issue and became the majority shareholder, upping his stake to 95 percent. Rabinovich responded with an attempt of physical takeover of the store's shopping floor. In October 2008, law enforcement agencies conducted searches at Moskva and confiscated the store's accounting records. Ulyanitsky was arrested at the airport while trying to leave the country. The criminal case against Ulyanitsky was based on Rabinovich's statement.

In October 2009, head of the store's legal department, Andrei Bralyuk, was severely beaten near his house. He was delivered to the hospital with multiple injuries and died a few months later. August of the same year saw another assassination attempt: the killers fired multiple shots at the car with another legal counsel, Marina Yefremova, but the woman miraculously survived.

The year of 2010 saw the final courtroom battle between Ulyanitsky and the Taganskaya gang, and Torshin sided with the latter.

On March 4, 2011, Alexander Torshin sent a letter to Russia's Prosecutor General Yury Chaika on an official form of the First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council, asking to look into the conflict. Chaika «looked into it,» and the Prosecutor's Office ruled against Ulyanitsky. Subsequently, Torshin started transferring his money abroad through his representative, Alexander Romanov. According to the Spanish investigators, they had perfected this scheme at the time of the Kristal distillery takeover.

«Alexander Torshin was actively transferring money from Russia to Spain through Alexander Romanov. He came up with a method of distributing money obtained through illegal takeover of the Kristall distillery in 2004–2005. To be more specific, Alexander Romanov siphoned off a total of 108.5 million rubles (2.715 million euros) from the distillery through TPK Kvant.» 

According to the Spanish case file, Romanov coordinated money transfers with Torshin, Grigory Rabinovich, and Igor Zhirnokleyev at personal meetings. Banker Ilya Gavrilov was another regular of these meetings. Notably, the FBI suspected Rabinovich of laundering money for Yaponchik (a/k/a Vyacheslav Ivankov), a crime lord who was subsequently shot in Moscow. As stated in the Romanov case file in Spain, Latvia has opened Criminal Case #12814006109 against Rabinovich.

The Spanish cops' conclusions are backed by extensive documentary evidence, including wiretapped phone conversations and intercepted emails (made available to The Insider).

As follows from the conversations, Romanov rented out the seized floor space in Moscow and transferred part of the profits to Spain as well. Thus, in a conversation of June 21, 2012 (interlocutor's identity unknown), Romanov rants about the Yolki-Palki restaurant paying «a submarket price.» He says he is going to double the rent for them or kick them out, in spite of their overriding lease, and if they are not amenable, he will request assistance from "Godfather."

The conversations also lead us to believe that Torshin assisted the gang when it came to interaction with government security services. Thus, according to the Spanish investigators, after LB Ikalto was seized, a group of security officers led by an Anton arrested the husband of the company's owner, Lilia Bastene, along with a number of Chechen businessmen, who were at odds with the Taganskaya gang. On June 20, 2013, Romanov phones Zhirnokleyev (one of the gang leaders) and asks if the latter has seen Anton or has managed to put the Chechens on a wanted list after they were released on their own recognizance. Romanov is concerned because he thinks that «the guys who apprehended them might be in trouble.» The Spanish investigators have no further information on the identity of Anton, who is Torshin's contact in the Russian security services. They presume he might be a high-ranking FSB officer. According to the wiretapped conversations, he reports to a certain Sasha (Russian short name for Alexander).

The Insider believes, however, that Anton is none other than Anton Klimov, head of Department 24 of Operations and Search Division 7 of the Criminal Investigations Directorate of the Main Directorate of the MIA of the RF for Moscow. According to the aggrieved party counsel, it was this department that assisted with the illegal takeover. At the time, Anton Klimov's commanding officer's name was indeed Sasha – head of the Criminal Investigations Directorate Alexander Trushkin.

It is clear that Torshin's connections are not limited to the MIA. Thus, economist Sergei Aleksashenko, one of Torshin's immediate superiors at the Bank of Russia back in the 1990s, has asserted that Torshin has had an in with the FSB for years. Furthermore, politician Vladimir Milov has shared that he was introduced to Torshin in 1998 by Prime Minister Kiriyenko's head of secretariat, Viktor Ratnikov, and Torshin was a member of Kiriyenko's candidate pool. "When Kiriyenko was prime minister, Torshin worked as deputy head of the Executive Office of the Russian Government and a government spokesman to the State Duma. When Kiriyenko became a Presidential Envoy to the Privolzhsky Federal District, he secured a seat for Torshin at the Federation Council for the Mari El Republic. <...> Considering the close connection between Torshin and Kiriyenko, I am almost certain that everything Torshin was doing in the USA under the pretext of 'gun-control' activities, was being meticulously coordinated with Kiriyenko."

Sergey Kiriyenko and Alexander Torshin

After a sentence was passed against Romanov and his accomplices in 2013, the Taganskaya gang did not cease to operate in Spain. For instance, in June 2016, Spain's Special Public Prosecutor's Office against Corruption and Organized Crime arrested 8 individuals on charges related to the gang's activities, which included smuggling cash in suitcases from Andorra.

Spain remains a popular destination for Russian organized crime – or at least has remained until recently. For instance, as The Insider wrote earlier, the Mar y Pins hotel (the one Romanov and Torshin used to launder the Taganskaya gang's money) hosted a gathering of Russian crime bosses in 2015. The occasion was presumably the birthday of Evgeny Dvoskin, who is wanted in a number of countries for money laundering and went into banking in Crimea in 2015.

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