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The Journal Gazette

Monday, May 01, 2017 1:00 am

Russians reportedly cozying up to conservatives for years

Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger Washington Post

Growing up in the 1980s, Brian Brown was taught to think of the Communist Soviet Union as an evil place.

But Brown, a leading anti-gay-marriage activist, 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 when 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.

From gun rights to terrorism to 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 most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia.

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

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

Around the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin, securing an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians.

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.

Making contacts

It is not clear what impact 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 2016 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 likely 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 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 did business in Russia for years.

Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene 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 NRA's president from 2011 to 2013.

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 the old NRA slogan, “Guns don't shoot –people shoot.”

Preston was an international observer of the 2011 legislative elections in Russia that sparked mass street protests in Moscow charging electoral irregularities.

But Preston said he concluded 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.

Wooing right

In Russia, Torshin and an aide, a photogenic activist 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.

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.

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.

Hall is 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 likely “controlled by the security services” to woo the American right.