Femme fatales, lavish Moscow parties and dark money – how Russia played the National Rifle Association.
By Tim Dickinson
The Rolling Stone (4/1/18)
In November 2013, the president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene, was introduced as an honored guest at the conference of the Right to Bear Arms, a gun lobby in Moscow. “There are no peoples that are more alike than Americans and Russians,” Keene said. “We’re hunters. We’re shooters. We value the same kinds of things.” Keene underscored his friendship with Alexander Torshin, a top politician in the ruling party of Vladimir Putin; for the past three years, Keene said, “I’ve hosted your senator Alexander Torshin at the National Rifle Association’s annual meetings.” In words that now carry a darker connotation, Keene insisted, “We need to work together.”
Torshin, now 64, is a roly-poly politician, perhaps five feet six, with thick glasses and a passion for borscht – “like medicine!” he once tweeted. A member of Putin’s right-wing United Russia party, he served in the Russian senate for more than a decade, forging close ties to Russia’s internal security service, the FSB, which awarded him a medal in 2016. His embrace of Keene, says Steven Hall, who served as chief of Russian operations for the CIA until 2015, was about more than forging “an international brotherhood of the NRA.”
“The idea of private gun ownership is anathema to Putin. So then the question is, ‘Why?’ Why was a pro-gun campaign being hatched by a leader in Putin’s own party? The answer, according to Hall, is that Putin was baiting a trap. “
As part of Putin’s “active measures,” Hall says, Russia has attempted to influence right-wing and populist factions abroad, preaching unity around social conservatism: “‘We’re both religious-based countries – we have the Orthodox Church that’s a big deal for us.’ ” The Russians, Hall believes, “made a natural transition in the United States to the NRA”; over time Putin became determined to exploit the American gun lobby “and decided Mr. Torshin is going to be the guy to do it for him.”
American teddy bear up against Russian bear
Keene proved an easy mark. A career lobbyist who advised presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, he was a longtime chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual CPAC convention. NRA board member Grover Norquist has praised Keene as “a conservative Forrest Gump” who’s been at “the center of all things conservative for decades.” Keene, with a sweep of white hair, owlish glasses and a patrician bearing, might move in cutthroat political circles, but friends say his personality runs against type. “He’s like a teddy bear,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has known Keene for decades. “He’s not hard-edged at all. He’s a gentleman.” (Keene did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Torshin and Keene forged a quick friendship. “Just a brief note to let you know just how much I enjoyed meeting in Pittsburgh during the NRA annual meeting,” Keene wrote in a 2011 letter later obtained by anti-corruption activists in Russia. Extending a personal invitation to the following year’s event, Keene added, “If there is anything any of us can do to help you in your endeavors . . . please don’t hesitate to let us know.”
Torshin’s “endeavors” included a plan to back a gun-rights group in Moscow. “We will start organizing our own Russian NRA,” Torshin soon tweeted. The NRA president seemed flattered, seeing Torshin as a powerful Russian eager to build a gun organization that mirrored his own, and even secured a Russian translation of the NRA charter.
But Russia experts believe Torshin’s interest in U.S. gun culture masked a dark, ulterior motive. …