Newly obtained documents describe what happened when two now-infamous Russians took their outreach campaign into the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve in 2015.
Alexander Torshin, then a Russian central banker, brought his protégée, Maria Butina, for meetings with senior officials and even sought another with the then-chair of the Fed, the documents confirm.
Agency officials described what happened before and since in internal materials obtained by NPR under the Freedom of Information Act. The fact of the meetings has previously been reported, but their contents have not been fully described until now.
Torshin has since been sanctioned by the Treasury Department and cannot return to the United States.
Butina, meanwhile, has since pleaded guilty to conspiring to serve as a Russian agent and has been sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Butina called her meetings with government officials, politicians and the National Rifle Association “civil diplomacy, this unofficial channel of diplomacy” and said it was meant to build relationships between the U.S. and Russian governments — and ultimately to promote peace.
The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department declined to comment for this story.
The ‘gun fanatic’
Torshin and Butina sought to build bridges between the Russian government and influential Americans via their enthusiasm for gun rights. Both had life memberships in the National Rifle Association.
At the same time, Russia was stepping up its broader campaign of influence against the United States.
So in 2015, after the chill in relations between Washington and Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Torshin sought to take advantage of his connection to Russia’s central bank.
Paul Saunders, who was then the executive director of a D.C.-based think tank called the Center for the National Interest, reached out to officials with the Treasury and the Fed to help organize meetings.
“Because we were about a year into U.S. sanctions on Russia following their annexation of Crimea, we thought it would be interesting for Americans to hear from a Russian central bank official about the status of the Russian financial system,” Saunders told NPR. “We were certainly not at that time aware of any derogatory information about Torshin.”
Saunders helped broker a meeting for Torshin and Butina with Nathan Sheets, then the undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs.
Treasury aide Erik Woodhouse consulted with a number of officials inside its Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and the White House’s National Security Council, but no red flags were raised about the meeting, which ultimately took place on April 7, 2015.
A few years later, after Butina was arrested, a Treasury Department staffer wrote about what took place.
According to that newly revealed account, the discussion wasn’t so much about banking as about denying Russia’s involvement in the shoot-down of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner and amplifying Torshin’s support for guns.
“The meeting was supposed to be about economics, but the guy just went on and on about how the Russians didn’t shoot down MH17 for an hour or so,” the Treasury Department official wrote, referring to the Malaysia Airlines flight.
“The guy was also a gun fanatic and said he was a ‘life member of the NRA.’ In fact I think he was even in town for personal business tied to the NRA.”
Saunders also reached out to request a meeting between then-Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Torshin in March 2015.
Yellen’s office passed on the meeting and suggested that Torshin instead meet with Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer. Following the approval of an adviser, Fischer took the meeting on April 8, 2015, without further investigation into Torshin’s background.
“They are in the United States to attend the NRA’s annual meeting,” the meeting’s official notes read. Both Russians pointed out, as part of their introduction, that they were “life members” of the NRA.
This meeting did turn to economic issues, including discussions about Russian credit and inflation.
Butina, now in custody at a detention center in Alexandria, Va., said the meetings were unremarkable.
Of her meeting with Fischer, she said: “Torshin put it straight: that he is here as an NRA member and he’s just interested in meeting similar-minded people. … I don’t remember, even, the details of this conversation, because it wasn’t significant at all.”
After months of investigations and headlines about Russia’s influence campaign against the United States, Torshin was placed under sanction by the U.S. government in 2018.
In the evidentiary package that designated Torshin as a target for U.S. sanctions — also obtained by NPR — the Treasury Department established that Torshin was a Russian government official who could be targeted under existing sanctions authorities.
But the package also highlighted Torshin’s alleged links with Russian organized crime.
Citing public sources such as Crime Russia, a news website focusing on Russian corruption, and El País, a Spanish newspaper, the document noted that Torshin was in “frequent contact” with Alexander Romanov, who heads the Taganskaya organized crime group, between August 2012 to May 2013.
“Torshin may have personally given instructions to members of the Taganskaya on money laundering methods using Spanish bank accounts and real estate,” the evidentiary package reads.
The package cites no classified or governmental sources, but experts say the inclusion of references to Torshin’s alleged organized crime links suggests the U.S. government had reason to believe the allegation was truthful.
“There’s a whole process that is used for determining what is included in an evidentiary package. By including it, they view it as credible and relevant to designating him with sanctions,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, who formerly served as a senior adviser to the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
“This information is strictly ancillary to the legal authorities needed to sanction Torshin, but they want to put it out there for government officials to be aware of.”
Butina told NPR that she once asked Torshin about these alleged links, but she said she didn’t believe they were true.
“I have no knowledge about this, absolutely none. … One time I asked him about it, and he denied it … a couple of years ago,” she said. “I don’t believe he has this type of personality.”