RED LETTER DAY
Maria Butina: Private Messages Reveal Accused Russian Spy’s True Ties to D.C. Wise Man
The head of the Center for the National Interest said his interaction with Butina was limited, but emails and direct messages show it was closer than previously understood.
On April 25, 2019, Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison after she admitted to conspiring to act as a covert Russian agent. Butina will be deported to Russia after she is released from prison.
When federal prosecutors charged Maria Butina with infiltrating the conservative movement on behalf of the Kremlin, questions began to swirl around a Washington think tank that had published her pro-GOP writing—and hosted then-candidate Donald Trump’s Russia-friendly first foreign-policy speech.
The executive director of the organization, the Center for the National Interest, insisted that its interaction with Butina was “very limited.”
But previously unreported emails and direct messages between Butina and officials at the Center show her relationship with the think tank’s president—former Richard Nixon adviser Dimitri Simes—was closer than previously understood. The two didn’t just make plans to have dinner together. According to emails and Twitter DMs reviewed by The Daily Beast, Simes looked to use his connections with Butina and her associate, Russian Central Bank official Alexandr Torshin, to advance the business interests of one of the Center’s most generous donors.
The Center’s executive director, Paul Saunders, declined to comment on the record for this story, as did Butina’s lawyer. An attorney for the donor—Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the one-time CEO of insurance and financial services giant AIG—said he did nothing inappropriate. Indeed, there’s no evidence that Greenberg requested the outreach or was even aware of it.
Butina was arrested in July and charged with illegally operating as a foreign agent. Prosecutors filed court documents saying that she offered sex in exchange for a job in the conservative movement—a claim Butina’s lawyer vehemently denied last week. Butina has pleaded not guilty and is currently in jail in Alexandria, Virginia.
After Butina’s arrest, several reports discussed Butina and Torshin’s contacts with the Center, including a Reuters story reporting that the think tank organized a meeting between Treasury officials and the pair on April 7, 2015.
But the relationship went even further than that, as emails and Twitter direct messages reviewed by The Daily Beast reveal. These communications indicate that Simes tried to connect a top benefactor of his organization and one of the most powerful officials in the Kremlin.
The meeting never happened. But if anyone could have pulled it off, it might have been the Moscow-born Simes. A fixture of the D.C. foreign policy establishment, he worked at some of Washington’s most prestigious institutions—including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies—before being selected by Richard Nixon to lead the Center for National Interest. Simes is widely viewed as one of the Washingtonians with the closest Kremlin connections. And his think tank argues for foreign policy realism, including warmer relations between Washington and Moscow.
“They believe the U.S. and Russia ought to have a working relationship and they ought to put their differences aside,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “That’s unabashedly what they believe. They’ve consistently argued that.”
The backstory to these exchanges is important. In 2008, Greenberg’s investment company paid about $100 million for 20 percent of a Russian entity called Investtorgbank. By December 2014, Russia’s Central Bank had begun an audit of the firm; the prospect loomed that Greenberg’s investment might be seized by the Russian authorities.
In April 2015, Butina—who federal prosecutors allege broke U.S. law by secretly working as an agent of the Kremlin—reached out to Greenberg’s investment company and suggested he put in even more money in the bank, as The Daily Beast previously reported. Simes learned of her outreach and told her to drop it.
On June 7, 2015, Butina emailed Simes about his efforts to schedule meetings in Moscow between Greenberg and Kremlin officials—meetings that would have come as the Russian Central Bank was auditing the bank in which Greenberg had invested $100 million.
“You and I spoke about how Mr. Greenberg plans to travel to Moscow at the end of June,” she wrote in Russian. (The Daily Beast translated the email.) “Alexander [Torshin] expressed a desire to meet with Greenberg in Moscow, and also to lend assistance in organizing meetings in the Russian capital, if you need our help.”
Simes replied the next day, June 8, 2015, and indicated he was pleased by Butina’s offer to help facilitate his benefactor’s travel plans.
“It is always nice to hear from you,” he wrote. “Please of course also pass my best wishes to Alexander Torshin. We really appreciate his willingness to help with the Hank Greenberg visit to Moscow.”
Simes then added that he tried to set up a meeting for Greenberg with Elvira Nabiullina, the head of the Russian Central Bank “some time ago” but that scheduling conflicts kept it from taking place. And he wrote that once Greenberg’s schedule was clear, he would reach out to Nabiullina’s chief of staff.
“However, of course, any help Mr. Torshin can offer would be most welcome,” he added.
Simes then said that while in Russia, Greenberg identifies himself as “an investor in the Russian economy,” with a controlling share in a Moscow office building and a major investment in Investtorgbank.
On June 10, 2015, Butina wrote back.
“A big thank you for the response and information,” she wrote. “I passed everything on to Alexander Porfiryevich [Torshin]. As soon as we know the exact dates of your arrival, we will absolutely help with your visit and the organization of meetings.”
In other words, Butina and Simes exchanged multiple emails discussing the logistics of what could have been high-level Moscow meetings between an American billionaire and a powerful Kremlin official whom The Wall Street Journal characterizes as a Putin ally.
Multiple sources told The Daily Beast that the discussed meetings never happened. An attorney for Greenberg provided the following statement: “Mr. Greenberg never had a meeting in Moscow with any of the people that you’ve referenced. Nothing that Mr. Greenberg did was ‘inappropriate.’”
But Marcus Owens, an attorney at Loeb & Loeb who formerly worked in the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division, told The Daily Beast it is atypical for a think tank president to go to such lengths to help a board member with his business interests.
“They suggest an unusual degree of attention being paid to a donor who apparently has a business issue,” he said. “The fact that it appears that the head of the charity was willing to travel to Russia to help resolve them, that would be truly extraordinary.”
The Moscow meetings weren’t the only topic of discussion between Simes and Butina.
Simes also paired Butina up with Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor-in-chief of the Center’s magazine, The National Interest.
“I will be mention [sic] to him that he may get a piece from you,” Simes added.
Butina then emailed Heilbrunn on June 10, 2015, writing that she had met Simes at the Center’s Washington office the previous month. She also sent a draft of an article titled “The Bear and the Elephant,” arguing that a Republican president could warm relations between the U.S. and Russia.
“Many thanks for your audacious essay,” Heilbrunn wrote. “I will be delighted to publish it and will edit it tomorrow. We will send you a final copy for your approval but I don’t anticipate any big changes.”
Butina then forwarded Heilbrunn’s email to Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican insider and her American love interest.
“‘Audacious’!!!” Erickson replied. “You’re on your way to becoming a notable on-line columnist!!! If Dmitri Simes’ editors are happy, DMITRI is happy - well done, my brilliant Siberian princess!!!”
The magazine published it two days later. About a week after its publication, Butina sent a thank-you email to Heilbrunn and Simes.
“Thank you very much for publishing my article,” she wrote. “It was translated by RT into Russian and really exploded Russian media. Now there are some political scientists that told that they agree with me. It makes me happy because before no one believed and at least talked that Russian-American relationships could be restored thanks to the future republican president.”
Butina then suggested writing another piece for the magazine about Russian oil projects.
“Dear Maria, I am pleased to hear that your piece had a real impact in Russia,” Simes replied. “I know Jacob was quite pleased to publish it. He is planning to be in touch with you regarding other possibilities. Please convey my regards to Alexandr Torshin. We are always glad to see him in Washington.”
Heilbrunn then emailed Butina and asked if she would write a piece for the magazine about her efforts to legalize guns in Russia. But a second piece never materialized.
In August 2015, Reuters reported that the Central Bank had seized control of Investtorgbank. Not long afterward, friction appears to have emerged between Simes, Butina, and Torshin. In a series of Twitter direct messages sent on Nov. 17, 2015, Torshin complained to Butina, claiming he was receiving lots of phone calls from Simes. The DMs were written in Russian and translated by The Daily Beast.
“Yes, incidentally, Simes is pressuring me about the interests of Greenberg,” Torshin wrote. “I really don't like that. Who knows what they will think in the Central Bank. Today I made it very clear that I am not their helper for these affairs in the Central Bank. I ask that you don't speak with anyone about banking in the Russian Federation. They may try to get you involved as well.”
“I’m not talking about it with anyone,” Butina replied. “You and I know that you are only talking to them because of an old friendship and not personal interests, but from the outside it will look different.”
Torshin then replied: “It’s necessary to know the limits: It’s one thing if Greenberg comes to invite him to lunch, that's fine, but these phone calls need to stop. What, are you their informant or something?! Screw them. The consequences could be very serious.”
“There is one nuance,” Torshin continued. “The chances of improving U.S.-Russia relations are increasing. We don't need a scandal (and Greenberg has a way of that). Scandal cuts down on chances for investment, although after today's latest announcement by Gref about the major banking crisis in Russia it would harm investments even more.”
Butina seemed to share Torshin’s concerns.
“Then it’s absolutely necessary to get permission for negotiations with them from the boss,” she replied. “It’s necessary to cover our rear. Later on no one will bother to try to get to the bottom of what your motives were. Don’t forget, Greenberg for some reason thinks you promised to protect his investments... You promised him NOTHING.”
Torshin then replied, “I stopped communications on this theme with Simes today. And I explained everything to him, the threats it carries to my reputation. There will be no more conversations about this topic. The boss is aware that they are appealing to me.”
“I fully support this approach,” Butina replied.