The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Guns and religion: How American conservatives grew closer to Putin’s Russia

Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina developed bonds with conservative leaders during the 2016 campaign - culminating in outreach to then-candidate Trump. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Growing up in the 1980s, Brian Brown was taught to think of the communist Soviet Union as a dark and evil place.

But Brown, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said that in the past few years he has started meeting Russians at conferences on family issues and finding many kindred spirits.

Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, has visited Moscow four times in four years, including a 2013 trip during which he testified before the Duma as Russia adopted a series of anti-gay laws.

"What I realized was that there was a great change happening in the former Soviet Union," he said. "There was a real push to re-instill Christian values in the public square."

A significant shift has been underway in recent years across the Republican right.

On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.

The attitude adjustment among many conservative activists helps explain one of the most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia. To the alarm of some in the GOP's national security establishment, support in the party base for then-candidate Donald Trump did not wane even after he rejected the tough tone of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who called Russia America's No. 1 foe, and repeatedly praised Putin.

Inside Trump’s financial ties to Russia and his unusual flattery of Vladimir Putin

The burgeoning alliance between Russians and U.S. conservatives was apparent in several events in late 2015, as the Republican nomination battle intensified.

President Trump addressed the NRA conference in Atlanta on April 28. "You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you," he said. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: JIM WATSON/The Washington Post)

Top officials from the National Rifle Association, whose annual meeting Friday featured an address by Trump for the third time in three years, traveled to Moscow to visit a Russian gun manufacturer and meet government officials.

About the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”

The growing dialogue between Russians and U.S. conservatives came at the same time experts say the Russian government stepped up efforts to cultivate and influence far-right groups in Europe and on the eve of Russia’s unprecedented intrusion into the U.S. campaign, which intelligence officials have concluded was intended to elect Trump.

Russians and Americans involved in developing new ties say they are not part of a Kremlin effort to influence U.S. politics. “We know nothing about that,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said. Brown said activists in both countries are simply “uniting together under the values we share.”

Here’s what we know so far about Team Trump’s ties to Russian interests

It is not clear what effect closer ties will have on relations between the two countries, which have gotten frostier with the opening of congressional and FBI investigations into Russia’s intrusion into the election and rising tensions over the civil war in Syria.

But the apparent increase in contacts in recent years, as well as the participation of officials from the Russian government and the influential Russian Orthodox church, leads some analysts to conclude that the Russian government probably promoted the efforts in an attempt to expand Putin’s power.

“Is it possible that these are just well-meaning people who are reaching out to Americans with shared interests? It is possible,” said Steven L. Hall, who retired from the CIA in 2015 after managing Russia operations for 30 years. “Is it likely? I don’t think it’s likely at all. . . . My assessment is that it’s definitely part of something bigger.”

Interactions between Russians and American conservatives appeared to gain momentum as Obama prepared to run for a second term.

At the time, many in the GOP warned that Obama had failed to counter the national security threat posted by Putin’s aggression.

But, deep in the party base, change was brewing.

At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced David Keene, then the NRA's president, to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin's party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was the NRA's president from 2011 to 2013.

Neither Keene nor Torshin responded to requests for comment. An NRA spokesman also did not respond to questions.

Torshin seemed a natural ally to American conservatives.

A friend of Mikhail Kalashnikov, revered in Russia for inventing the AK-47 assault rifle, Torshin in 2010 had penned a glossy gun rights pamphlet, illustrated by cartoon figures wielding guns to fend off masked robbers. The booklet cited U.S. statistics to argue for gun ownership, at one point echoing in Russian an old NRA slogan: “Guns don’t shoot — people shoot.”

Torshin was also a leader in a Russian movement to align government more closely with the Orthodox church.

“The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line,” Preston said. “The so-called conflict between our two nations is a tragedy because we’re very similar people, in a lot of our values, our interests and that sort of thing.”

Preston, an expert on Russian law whose office features a white porcelain bust of Putin, said he had told Tennessee friends for years not to believe television reports about the Russian leader having journalists or dissidents killed.

Preston was an international observer of the 2011 legislative elections in Russia, which sparked mass street protests in Moscow charging electoral irregularities. But Preston said he concluded that the elections were free and fair.

By contrast, Preston said he and Torshin saw violations of U.S. law — pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place — when Torshin traveled to Nashville to observe voting in the 2012 presidential election.

In Russia, Torshin and an aide, a photogenic activist originally from Siberia named Maria Butina, began building a gun rights movement.

Butina founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms, and in 2013 she and Torshin invited Keene and other U.S. gun advocates to its annual meeting in Moscow.

The event, where about 200 people gathered at Moscow’s convention center, included a fashion show in which models donned “concealed carry” garments with built-in pockets for weapons.

One American participant, Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, recalled that Torshin and Butina took him and his wife out for dinner and gave them gifts that displayed research into their interests — 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 said.

Butina, now a graduate student at American University in Washington, told The Post via email that her group’s cause is “not very popular” with Russian officials and has never received funding from the government or from the NRA. She said she has never worked for the government and added that she and the American activists she has befriended simply share a love of gun rights.

“No government official has EVER approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans,” she wrote.

Hall, the former CIA officer, said he was skeptical. He said he did not think Putin would tolerate a legitimate effort to advocate for an armed citizenry, and asserted that the movement is probably “controlled by the security services” to woo the American right.

When Torshin and Butina attended the NRA’s 2014 annual convention, their profiles as scrappy Russians pushing for gun rights were rising. Butina attended an NRA women’s luncheon as a guest of one of the organization’s past presidents.

Interviewed by the conservative website Townhall, Butina called the NRA “one of the most world famous and most important organizations” and said that “we would like to be friends with NRA.”

While Russians are allowed to own shotguns, Butina said her group hoped to reverse a ban on carrying handguns.

That year’s turbulent events — in which Russia’s incursion into Ukraine prompted the Obama administration to enact strict sanctions against Moscow — illustrated the Russians’ alliance with U.S. gun advocates.

Butina argued in a Russian interview that firearm sellers in her country, including the popular Kalashnikov, were among the “most impacted” by sanctions, which specifically blocked its assets.

In Washington, the NRA’s lobbying arm blasted the order, saying that such restrictions have “long been used by the executive branch as a means of unilaterally enacting gun control.”

Trump vows to come through for NRA

Relationships between Russians and American conservatives seemed to blossom in 2015, as the Republican presidential race geared up.

Butina posted social-media photos showing how she and Torshin gained access to NRA officials and the U.S. politicians attending events. That April, Butina toured the NRA’s Virginia headquarters, and she and Torshin met Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), then a leading White House contender, at the NRA annual convention. Torshin told Bloomberg last year that he had a friendly exchange with Trump at the 2015 convention and sat with his son Donald Jr. at an NRA dinner the following year.

Walker’s spokesman said the encounter was brief, as speakers mingled with attendees before their remarks. A senior White House official said Trump may have briefly interacted with Torshin at the 2015 convention but did not recall. At the next year’s event, the official said Torshin briefly greeted Donald Jr. at a restaurant.

In June 2015, as Trump announced his candidacy, Butina wrote a column in the National Interest, a conservative U.S. magazine, suggesting that a Republican in the White House might improve U.S.-Russia relations.

She wrote that Republicans and Russians held similar views on oil exploration and that cultural conservatives would identify with Putin’s party and its aggressive take on Islamic terrorism.

Butina that summer immersed herself in U.S. politics. In July, she showed up in Las Vegas at FreedomFest, a meeting of libertarians where Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rival for the GOP nomination, were speaking.

She made her way to a microphone during Trump’s speech and asked in accented English, “What will be your foreign politics, especially in the relations with my country?”

It was the first time Trump had been asked about Russia as a candidate.

“I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” he said.

Trump would go on to repeatedly praise the Russian president as a strong leader.

But Trump, who at the time was considered a long shot for the nomination, echoed a sentiment then bubbling up from some corners of the conservative grass roots — that Putin was a potential friend.

That was the takeaway for Graham, the North Carolina-based evangelist, after his November 2015 Kremlin meeting with Putin.

The last time Graham had visited Moscow, with his father, Billy Graham, in the 1980s, the practice of religion was prohibited. On this trip, he said, conditions for Christians in Russia remained difficult. But Graham recalled that Putin listened as he described evangelical Christianity and the challenges facing Christians around the world. Putin explained that his mother kept her Christian faith even during the darkest days of atheistic communist rule.

“He understood,” Graham said of the Russian leader.

Putin offered to help Graham organize an international conference on Christian persecution in Moscow, Graham said. Instead, a Russian delegation is expected when the conference takes place in May in Washington, Graham said.

At the end of 2015, Butina welcomed a delegation to Moscow that included Keene, by then a member of the NRA board, as well as top NRA donors. The group also included a rising star in GOP politics, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who went on to be a campaign surrogate for Trump and has been mentioned as a contender for a high-level job at the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke did not respond to requests for comment.

The group toured a gun manufacturing company and met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who was among the officials sanctioned by the White House following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Keene told the Daily Beast, which first reported the meeting, that the interaction with Rogozin was "non-political" and consisted of touring the headquarters of a shooting group that Rogozin chairs.

After Trump’s victory, Torshin returned to the United States with a delegation of prominent Russians to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February. In addition to his gun-rights work, Torshin also had helped build a similar prayer breakfast in Moscow from an obscure monthly event a decade ago into one more resembling the annual ritual in Washington.

Putin now sends an annual greeting to the Russian event, a recognition of its value in allowing “Russian and American guests to come together under one roof in order to rebuild the relationship between the two countries that has degraded under the administration of President Obama,” said breakfast organizer Peter Sautov in an email.

Torshin, accompanied by 15 Russian church and government officials, requested to meet the new president before Trump spoke at the event, according to people familiar with the arrangement.

But they said the meeting was canceled as reports surfaced from Spanish authorities alleging that Torshin led an organized crime and money-laundering operation. Torshin has not been charged and denied wrongdoing in an interview with Bloomberg, which first reported the allegations.

A White House official said the requested meeting was never confirmed in the first place. The proposed meeting was first reported by Yahoo.

That night, Torshin gathered for a festive dinner at a Capitol Hill restaurant with conservative thought leaders who have supported warmer ties with Russia.

“There has been a change in the views of hard-core conservatives toward Russia,” a participant, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), said in an interview. “Conservative Republicans like myself hated communism during the Cold War. But Russia is no longer the Soviet Union.”

Andrew Roth in Moscow and Alice Crites and Karoun Demirjian in Washington contributed to this report.