Russians courting the NRA before the 2016 election came with a 35-inch long olive branch: the AK-47.
Alexander Torshin is the Russian banker and Putin ally reportedly at the center of an FBI probe into whether the NRA received illegal Russian money to help Donald Trump in 2016. Torshin has ties to the Kalashnikov Concern, the state-owned company that makes the AK and other popular rifles, according to a TPM review of bank statements. And in 2014, the NRA raised concerns about the Obama administration’s move to ban the Kalashnikov Concern from doing business in the U.S., which is easily the largest market for civilian firearms.
The ban was part of the Obama administration’s broader sanctions regime introduced in response to the Russian seizure of Crimea that year.
What to make of the connections? The link between Torshin and Kalashnikov, along with the NRA’s support for lifting sanctions on the Kalashnikov Concern, suggests a confluence of interests between Torshin and the NRA which could have played in to the Russian efforts to influence the gun lobby group.
Torshin serves as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, which is Russia’s version of the U.S. Federal Reserve, but also controls a major Russian consumer bank, Sberbank, which it founded. Sberbank, which also is on the U.S. sanctions list, is a major lender to Rostec, a company owned directly by the Russian Federation that buys other companies near bankruptcy on behalf of the government and tries to recuperate them. One of Rostec’s holdings is Kalashnikov. Sberbank has often done business with Rostec, structuring its common corporate treasury and lending millions to its aerospace subsidiary in the immediate wake of the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2014.
Those sanctions barred American companies from doing business with Rostec, Sberbank, the Central Bank of Russia, and oil companies Gazprom and Rosneft.
After the sanctions were issued, the NRA released a statement expressing concerns about the inclusion of the Kalashnikov Concern. It warned that the administration might be “using a geopolitical crisis as a convenient excuse to advance the president’s domestic anti-gun agenda.”
Already evidence has emerged that lifting or loosening the sanctions was a key part of the broader Russian effort to gain influence with the Trump campaign. In June 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with links to the Putin government, reportedly met with Trump campaign officials and spoke against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned a number of government officials for the murder of a whistleblowing accountant. When President Obama threatened further sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak called Michael Flynn to complain.
Torshin’s overtures to the gun lobby emphasized his close relationship with his elderly friend Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the rifle. In early 2014, Torshin wrote about the Kalashnikov for the Washington Times opinion page, then under the editorship of former NRA president David Keene. Torshin called the gun, one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.” Both Torshin and Kalshnikov were lifetime NRA members.
Mark Galeotti, a historian of contemporary Russia, said the Kalashnikov isn’t important in terms of military strategy — many of Rostec’s companies are — but called it “an export champion and a part of the national brand.” Before the sanctions, the New York Times estimated that fully 28% of Kalashnikov’s total business came from the U.S.
TPM has detailed the years of ties between Torshin and his assistant, Maria Butina, and the NRA.
Butina, who runs a shadowy Russian gun-rights organization, showed up at the 2016 libertarian Freedom Fest convention, where Donald Trump spoke. Video from the vent shows a redheaded woman with a Russian accent claiming to be from Russia asking Trump, then a candidate for president, whether he would consider lifting sanctions on Russia.
“Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?” the woman asked.