More than three years before she was arrested on the accusation of being a covert Russian agent, Maria Butina gave a guest lecture to about a dozen students munching pizza in a setting far removed from the country’s political world: a university in Vermillion, S.D.
The next month she spoke to about 20 business-minded students at a public high school in Sioux Falls. And that summer, she talked to a crowd of teenagers at a politically oriented summer camp organized by South Dakota Republicans.
The incidents are drawing scrutiny after federal authorities arrested Butina last week and charged her with acting on behalf of the Russian government as part of a campaign to influence U.S. politics.
These incidents, far removed from the national political sphere and its nodes of power, give a window into the years of planning and attention to detail that undergird what investigators say was Butina’s campaign.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, Butina was under the direction of a high-level Russian official who coached her to win “the battle for the future” and “not burn out (fall) prematurely.”
Butina’s work forming relationships with conservative officials had started years before the 2016 election. In 2013, she and Alexander Torshin, a well-connected Russian senator from Vladimir Putin’s party who matches the description of the official named in the affidavit, invited NRA President David Keene and other gun enthusiasts to Moscow for a meeting held by the gun rights nonprofit she had founded, the Right to Bear Arms.
Representatives for the South Dakota university, school and summer camp said all three events were organized with the help of Paul Erickson, a Republican operative from the state who matches a description of an American described in court filings as someone who helped introduce Butina to powerful political figures “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she had been in a romantic relationship with the operative, people familiar with the matter said.
A poster for Butina’s April 2015 appearance at the University of South Dakota shows a picture of her looking upward idealistically and touts her credentials as a gun rights activist. Michelle Cwach said the lecture had been sponsored by a center within the school’s political science department as well as two student groups.
“The event was a small pizza lunch with approximately a dozen students in attendance,” a statement she distributed said. “The topic at hand was the right to bear arms in Russia.”
Ben Schumacher, a spokesman for the Sioux Falls School District, said in an e-mail that Butina spoke to about 20 students at the Career and Technical Education Academy high school about women and entrepreneurship, including her “pathway to becoming an owner/operator of her own business.”
Butina’s appearance that summer at the South Dakota Teen Republicans camp was immortalized in photographs posted to social media and as well as a tweet from one of the camp’s leaders, Dusty Johnson.
“Maria Butina was incredible at South Dakota TARS camp,” wrote Johnson, who is now the Republican candidate in an open race for the state’s sole congressional seat. “The kids loved her stories of working for freedom in Russia.”
The weeklong camp was held in the Black Hills mountain range, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
David Gomez, a retired FBI counterintelligence expert, said Butina’s presence at the sparsely attended events in a low-profile state in 2015 was likely part an effort to build her credibility.
“It’s to increase her bona fides, her acceptability and her background,” he said. “If you’re an agent of influence, you’re doing that so you can tout that on your résumé, you’re trying to increase your ability for someone with more power by establishing a track record.”