Most romances don’t end in indictment – but then again, the relationship between Maria Butina and Paul Erickson isn’t like most romances.
If anything, the love story between a gun-loving Russian covert agent and a conservative activist cum alleged fraudster, reads like a Coen brothers movie. There’s the intrigue of a legal thriller (Bridge of Spies), the self-defeating scheming of a crime drama (Fargo), the excess of a cult classic (The Big Lebowski), and even a bit of romance (just about everything, really, ever).
But Butina will be in no mood for plot twists when she appears in court on Thursday for what she hopes will be the last hearing in a saga that has had her sitting in solitary confinement since her arrest in Washington last summer, and on FBI watchlists for years.
She stands accused of acting as an undercover influence agent for Russia and exploiting personal connections, in part of a larger Kremlin-backed plan to infiltrate influential conservative groups, most notably the National Rifle Association, and steer American politics in Moscow’s direction, according to a criminal complaint.
Butina was arrested last July, the same month that Robert Mueller indicted a dozen other alleged Kremlin-linked intelligence agents in Russia for hacking Democratic computers in 2016. But the story of how she leveraged her connection to a black-sheep GOP operative with a history of taking on questionable causes, certainly sets the story apart.
For one thing, it’s a love story – “a classic love story” – to hear her lawyer tell it.
Whatever the truth of their connection, her relationship with the Republican operative nearly twice her age – with a speckled past that ranged from work as an 80s anti-communist film producer, a spokesperson for John Wayne Bobbitt and lobbyist for a notorious African dictator, to a trail of lawsuits for reportedly misleading investors and failing to repay loans – separates the case from other investigations into Russian meddling in American politics.
Even if special counsel Robert Mueller found no collusion between Trump and Russia, here at least is one small example of collusion of the most intimate sort.
And it’s one that offers a window into a mess of complicated relationships between Kremlin-connected officials and America’s conservative elite, or at least elite-adjacent.
Butina’s playbook mixed the political with the personal. It’s also something that Butina excelled at – or was thought to excel at until last 15 July, when she opened the door of her DC apartment and was surrounded by FBI agents in bulletproof vests.
Paul's an ultimate conman – he'd rather steal a buck from somebody than work hard enough to earn two bucksLee Schoenbeck
Now, after pleading guilty to conspiracy, Butina is poised to find out whether she’ll get as much as five years in jail or go free practically immediately. “If she got the time-served sentence, she would be heading back to Russia soon after,” her lawyer Robert Driscoll told the Guardian.
Meanwhile, it appears the legal trouble is just beginning for Erickson, who was indicted last month in his home state of South Dakota on 11 counts of fraud and money laundering. The charges stem from an assisted living-related business scheme, with activities stretching from 1996 to August of 2018, and include the notable claim that Erickson scammed investors regarding fallacious development of a wheelchair to help people access a toilet with greater ease.
Erickson pleaded not guilty to all counts last month in the fraud case. Meanwhile, he is also reported to be a target in the Butina case, although he has yet to face any charges there.
Recently his imprisoned paramour has begun cooperating with officials, and their visits have become more sparse, according to someone familiar with their relationship. So even more trouble could be on the way.
Loving Maria Butina wasn’t always so fraught for Paul Erickson.
The woman he fell for was raised in the rugged mountain region of southern Siberia known as Altai, where just about everyone owned a rifle and her fond childhood memories included learning to shoot with her father.
But Erickson wouldn’t meet her until 2013 while on a visit to Moscow, where after some fledgling success in the local furniture retail economy of Siberia, Butina had moved in her 20s. There, she seemed to have found her calling as a gun rights advocate, helping to create The Right To Bear Arms in 2011, with early recruiting efforts centered on women and self-defense.
Erickson had also grown up in inhospitable climes, as a native of Vermillion, South Dakota. He had been active in politics since his teens, and was already getting into trouble for it as an underclassman at the University of South Dakota. He was stripped of his title of vice president of the student association for disclosing confidential student records as part of a campaign to defeat then-Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, according to a 2003 profile in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Even then he had mastered the art of failing up: after the Daschle debacle, he successfully transferred to Yale, going on to graduate from there and with a law school degree from the University of Virginia in 1988.
Photograph: Dana Verkouteren/AP
“Paul’s an ultimate conman,” Lee Schoenbeck, a state senator from South Dakota who first met Erickson through South Dakota College Republican circles around 1979, told the Guardian. “Paul would rather steal a buck from somebody than work hard enough to earn two bucks.”
But those early years in South Dakota were the first sign of the political operator he would become. And perhaps, decades later, can also help explain what made him appealing to Butina: here was a man who, given the right incentives, would do just about anything.
The gun group founded by a young Butina enjoyed financial support from at least one Russian billionaire, Konstantin Nikolaev, with ties to a Russian gun company, and from Russian senator Alexander Torshin, a Putin ally who later became a top Moscow banker and her handler in American covert efforts, according to court documents.
Torshin and Butina were both life-time NRA members who for several years attended NRA conventions, as well as hosting events for wealthy, gun-loving NRA honchos willing to venture abroad.
And so it was that Butina met Erickson in 2013.
He had come on the trip somewhat by chance, as accompaniment to the former NRA president David Keene, a longtime friend and political collaborator – almost 20 years earlier, they had worked together lobbying on behalf of Mobutu Sese Seko, the leader of what was then Zaire.
Erickson explained in a 2017 interview that Keene had been hobbled by a bad knee and welcomed extra help abroad.
Fortunately for Keene, he was surrounded by many friends. “Keene and the NRA had a moral obligation to support them,” Erickson recalled of that first meeting with Butina’s group. Butina’s fledgling group “considered the NRA to be a role model.”
The Moscow confab drew about 400 people including farmers and former soldiers, Erickson recalled, with speakers including Keene and Torshin, then a powerful Russian senator and Putin ally who helped launch the gun rights group and had first met Keene at an NRA meeting in Pittsburgh in 2011.
But it was Butina’s performance above all that had Erickson gushing. “It was an impressive meeting,” Erickson said. “She was being very brave.”
He had faith in Butina, and decided to take her under his wing post-Moscow meeting. “I advised her on setting up a consulting operation,” Erickson said, adding somewhat enigmatically: “Maria is a protege of ours.”
On the face of it, they made a mis-matched couple: as a balding Republican operative pushing 50, Erickson was already around twice Butina’s age at the time they met.
Butina has owned her romantic involvement with Erickson, but the nature of their romantic connection remains a topic of dispute.
Is Erickson just another middle-aged, middling fringe player, drawn in over his head by a relationship he thinks he controls? Did she ever really love him? And can we assume he actually loved her, that there was something beyond the guns and red hair?
In many ways their political stars were aligned: Butina’s desire to help Russia on the world stage meshed well with the branch of American conservatism increasingly open to the notion that Russia was no longer the foe of cold war years. Instead, Erickson and some prominent conservatives like ex-Congressman Dana Rohrabacher were interested in finding common ground with Russians on gun issues, as well as social and religious causes.
Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Prosecutors have alleged Butina ensnared Erickson in a “duplicitous relationship”, at times expressing “disdain” for him. Also, that while she’s believed to have co-habited with him she only did so because she viewed the arrangement as “a necessary aspect of her activities”.
Butina’s lawyer has pushed back on the claim, sharing photographs of the pair and even releasing some slightly bizarre video footage of the two staring adoringly into one another’s eyes as they sing the title track to Beauty and the Beast – a tribute, Driscoll said, to Butina’s fascination with Disney , as well as a birthday present for Erickson.
Years after he first met Erickson, when the brother of one of Schoenbeck’s school buddies married Erickson’s sister, he heard reports through the grapevine about how Erickson was showing up at family gatherings with his ‘fiance,’ the beautiful Russian redhead – and knew something wasn’t right.
“Paul with his vanity thinks this chick is after him, that this bald, overweight guy is sexy or something, she was in it for love,” Schoenbeck said. “We have been laughing about it – the Russians must be thinking, ‘We spent all this money and all we got is this bloviating clown with a fake resumé?’”
But if chameleoning is her strong suit, in Erickson, with his political jobs that changed as frequently as the weather, she had met her match.
By the time he met Butina in Moscow in 2013, Erickson had lived what might seem like many different people’s lives, or one man’s extremely screwball one, with accomplishments ranging from high profile to bizarre, but skewing toward the latte.
Erickson came up at a time when conservative brands like Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff were ascendant, part of what Mother Jones called a “platoon of baby-faced Reagan enthusiasts”. After graduating from law school, Erickson spent the 1980s and ‘90s trying on political jobs like so many ill-fitting sweatshirts.
He expressed support for pro-Western insurgencies in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, delivering aid to “freedom fighters,” a popular conservative cause during the Reagan years. Then in 1988, he teamed up with Abramoff, an old buddy from college Republican circles (who years later became a convicted lobbyist), to try his hand in Hollywood, helping to produce the anti-communist action flick Red Scorpion.
In 1992, Erickson worked on Pat Buchanan’s losing presidential bid, even rising up to the ephemeral glory of campaign political director. A few years after that, it was tabloid history that came knocking when John Wayne Bobbitt’s wife took his penis with a carving knife and Erickson did a brief stint as his spokesman.
He was like a Forrest Gump of conservative politics – forever stumbling upon history but never playing much of a role
In 1995, Erickson and his NRA buddy Keene worked as foreign agents in collaboration with Abramoff, lobbying to help Mobutu gain entry into the United States.
In 1997 when evangelicals pushed to get half a million-plus Christian men out and marching on Washington to, as a Baltimore Sun report from the time featuring Erickson put it, help men “reclaim their traditional role over women,” Erickson was on the scene there too.
More recently he served as an adviser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Like a Forrest Gump of conservative politics, he was forever stumbling upon history but never playing much of a role.
Butina would cure him of that, but perhaps not in the way he wished.
Butina’s relationship with Erickson started as a professional connection. And even as it developed, through correspondence and in early transatlantic meetings, business was never beside the point.
Butina hosted Erickson in Moscow again at an another Right to Bear Arms meeting in September of 2014. And such hospitality was handsomely repaid with Torshin and Butina attending the NRA’s annual conventions in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
She also entered the US in 2016 on an F-1 student visa, purportedly to enroll as a graduate student at American University and be closer to her boyfriend.
It was also, prosecutors say, a comfortable perch from which to carry out what they called her “covert influence campaign” on behalf of the Kremlin toward the NRA and conservative religious groups, like the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast all part of a multi-pronged effort that involved “substantial planning, international coordination and preparation”.
During the two years she spent at American’s global security program, Butina studied cybersecurity of all fields, and lived among the neat brick apartments in McLean Gardens in north-west DC.
Her strong pro-Russia views drew notice at school. She voiced outspoken approval of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, bragged about aiding in Trump-Russia communications, and flaunted her cellphone case featuring a shirtless Putin on a horse.
She maintained a top grade-point average – a fact prosecutors have attributed to Erickson helping her with her homework. She has adamantly denied that, arguing the idea that she would need a man’s help academically is sexist.
He also may have helped her pay the bills with tainted money. Documents in Erickson’s recent fraud indictment shows he cut a check for more than $20,000 to American University in 2017, while Butina was a student there.
All the while she was making appearances with Erickson on the DC party circuit, and expanding contacts with like-minded conservatives, including some quarterly NRA confabs, according to sources, and using her connections in the gun world to bridge cultural divides.
In many ways, Butina’s stated goal of pushing gun rights for the common man in Putin’s Russia was a surprising, if not outright laughably futile cause.
And it was one that certainly raised the eyebrow of Russia security expert J Michael Waller when, at a DC party in the winter of 2015-16, his old acquaintance, Erickson, made an entrance with Butina on his arm.
Erickson introduced the young woman enthusiastically as “a leader of a pro-gun-rights movement in Russia,” Waller recently recalled in an interview with the Guardian, boasting of her ties to “some very wealthy Russians”.
Gun advocacy efforts weren’t the only thing the two were collaborating on. In February 2016, Butina and Erickson incorporated the company, Bridges LLC, together in South Dakota, though the nature of its business activities were unclear. Erickson in a 2017 interview said the LLC was set up to help Butina fund her studies if needed, but South Dakota has no records of any activities.
And then there was the courting of political candidates.
Trump wasn’t the only Republican presidential candidate she mingled with and courted, but he was the one who stuck, and the one who from mid-2015 and on exhibited a friendly disposition toward Russia.
She played reporter at a Trump press conference early in Nevada in 2015, asking the newly-declared presidential candidate if he’d enforce “damaging” sanctions against her home country. (Trump’s reply was almost comically friendly: “Ah, Putin!” he interrupted, when Butina identified herself as visiting from Russia. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”)
Butina’s efforts weren’t always fruitful: an attempt to interview a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a ‘school project’ while she was a student at American, for instance, fell flat. But more often than not, she enjoyed success.
She had help from Erickson, who in May of 2016 was busy seeking to facilitate meetings between Torshin and Trump ahead of the annual NRA meeting in Louisville Kentucky, describing Torshin as “Putin’s emissary”. The invitation was declined; but Torshin did chat with Trump Jr briefly at a dinner during the NRA convention which gave an early endorsement to Trump who benefited mightily from the record $30m the NRA spent on his behalf.
In the weeks ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Butina tried to keep a low profile. But after Trump was elected, she couldn’t contain her exuberance, attending an inaugural ball and even sending a selfie to Torshin from her perch by the US Capitol on the day Trump was inaugurated. “You’re a daredevil girl! What can I say!” Torshin wrote back. She responded: “Good teachers!”
Photograph: Pavel Ptitsin/AP
In another message, Torshin gushed that she had “upstaged” Anna Chapman, another auburn-haired Russian intelligence agent who was arrested in New York in 2010 as part of a secret agent swap.
That same month Butina celebrated her birthday to great excess, hosting a “Stars and Tsars”-themed costume party in Cleveland Park’s Cafe Deluxe, where she was Empress Alexandra to Erickson’s Rasputin, as the Daily Beast would report.
So it must have felt a world away when, in July of 2018, two days after a dozen Russian cyber-agents were indicted for hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016, she was arrested so unceremoniously amid the boxes of an apartment she’d hoped to flee with a move to South Dakota with Erickson who, it turns out, may have been mulling his own offer to work for Russian intelligence.
A separate FBI raid on Erickson’s South Dakota home, according to ABC News, found a handwritten note that read, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” referring to the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB.
Amid it all, Putin, the man Butina had been working for years to help, was a world away–specifically, he was meeting in July of 2018 in Helsinki with Trump. And he was about – publicly at least – to mete out a lesson in the brutal realities of covert work.
And when asked about Butina, Putin denied any knowledge of her existence. “She’s facing 15 years in prison. For what?” he would say in the wake of her arrest. “When I heard that something was happening to her […] I started by asking all our secret service chiefs: who is she? Nobody knew anything about her!”
Meanwhile the man Butina purported to love is now looking down the proverbial barrel.
Until about a month ago, Erickson was still visiting Butina as often as twice a week, as well as speaking with her on the phone, according to a source familiar with the matter. But in the past month, since Erickson’s begun to face his own indictments, their contacts have slowed to a trickle.
They can’t talk about the case because meetings are recorded, but even without the technical difficulties, and especially given Butina’s cooperation following her plea deal in December, the air between them seems to have gotten heavier.
And the difficulties are ever expanding.
Erickson’s February indictment involving the alleged swindling of various Dakota investors had been cast by prosecutors as unrelated to the Butina foreign agent case.
But then, perhaps it’s still noteworthy that several checks appearing in the indictment were made out to a recipient identified only by their initials: “MB.”
Additional reporting by David Taylor