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Why an accused Russian agent visited an American university and South Dakota summer camp

Maria Butina, 29, founded a Russian group called the Right to Bear Arms. On July 16 she was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

More than three years before she was arrested on the accusation of being a covert foreign agent with ties to Russian intellegence operatives, Maria Butina gave a guest lecture to about a dozen students munching pizza in a setting far removed from the country’s political world: a public university in Vermillion, S.D.

The next month she spoke to about 20 business-minded students at a public high school in Sioux Falls. And that summer, she talked to a crowd of teenagers at a politically oriented summer camp organized by South Dakota Republicans.

The incidents were documented in bits and pieces at the time — on a university flier, in an appreciation posted to social media by a local Republican and on Butina’s own social media profiles.

They are drawing renewed scrutiny after federal authorities arrested Butina this week and charged her with acting on behalf of the Russian government as part of a campaign to influence American politics.

While the majority of attention on the accused spy has focused on her efforts to cultivate relationships in 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, give a window into the years of planning and attention to detail that undergird what investigators say was Butina’s campaign.

According to an affidavit filed in the case, Butina was under the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government who coached her to win “the battle for the future” and “not burn out (fall) prematurely.”

David Gomez, a retired FBI counterintelligence expert, said in an interview that Butina’s presence at the sparsely attended events in a low-profile state in 2015 was likely part of an effort to build her credibility.

“It’s to increase her bona fides, her acceptability and her background,” he said. “If you’re an agent of influence, you’re doing that so you can tout that on your résumé, you’re trying to increase your ability for someone with more power by establishing a track record.”

Butina’s work forming relationships with conservative officials had started years before the 2016 election. In 2013, she and Alexander Torshin, a well-connected Russian senator from Vladimir Putin’s party who matches the description of the official named in the affidavit, invited NRA President David Keene and other gun enthusiasts to Moscow for a meeting held by the gun rights nonprofit she had founded, the Right to Bear Arms.

Representatives for the South Dakota university, school and summer camp told The Washington Post that all three events were organized with the help of Paul Erickson, a Republican operative from the state who matches a description of an American described in court filings as someone who helped introduce Butina to powerful political figures “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she had been in a romantic relationship with the operative, 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 requesting comment.

‘She was like a novelty’: How alleged Russian agent Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles

A poster for Butina’s April 2015 appearance at the University of South Dakota shows a picture of her looking upward idealistically and touts her credentials as a gun rights activist. A spokeswoman for the university, Michelle Cwach, said in an email to The Post on Tuesday that the lecture had been sponsored by a center within the school’s political science department as well as two student groups.

“The event was a small pizza lunch with approximately a dozen students in attendance,” a statement she distributed said. “The topic at hand was the right to bear arms in Russia.”

Ben Schumacher, a spokesman for the Sioux Falls School District, said in an email that Butina spoke to about 20 students at the Career and Technical Education Academy high school about women and entrepreneurship, including her “pathway to becoming an owner/operator of her own business.”

“There was no political discussion whatsoever,” Schumacher said.

That event had come about because Erickson was working as a volunteer to teach business-focused lessons with the school, Schumacher said.

Butina’s appearance that summer at the South Dakota Teen Republicans camp was immortalized in photographs posted to social media, as well as a tweet from one of the camp’s leaders, Dusty Johnson.

“Maria Butina was incredible at South Dakota TARS camp,” wrote Johnson, who is now the Republican candidate in an open race for the state’s sole congressional seat. “The kids *loved* her stories of working for freedom in Russia.”

The week-long camp was held in the Black Hills mountain range, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Johnson’s campaign manager, Will D. Mortenson, told The Post that Erickson was at the center of Butina’s appearance at the camp, saying that the GOP operative had reached out to tout her as someone who was a “freedom fighter” who was pushing back against Putin’s regime.

Mortenson said that Butina spoke to the group of students — about 50 according to photos — for 20 minutes about guns 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 alongside the news of her indictment.

“The SDGOP owes the people of South Dakota a detailed explanation of how Ms. Butina came to speak at their Teenage Republican Camp at the same time 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. “At the very least, South Dakota Republicans 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 minimum, raises serious questions about the SDGOP’s judgment and competence.”

Mortenson said Johnson had looked up Butina’s background and was partially swayed by her appearance at the University of South Dakota.

“Ms. Butina posed as a freedom fighter, struggling against the oppression of the Putin regime,” Johnson said in a statement distributed by Mortenson. “Instead, it looks like she’s a scam 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 politically minded student who was looking to network with Americans and not a Russian agent.

“She intends to defend her rights vigorously and looks forward to clearing her name,” he said in a statement.

Butina, who graduated from American University in Washington in May, had been preparing to leave for South Dakota last weekend when the FBI arrested her.

Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report. 

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