Washington: Accused Russian agent Maria Butina had wider high-level contacts in Washington than previously known, taking part in 2015 meetings between a visiting Russian official and two senior officials at the US Federal Reserve and Treasury Department.
The meetings, disclosed in a report prepared by a Washington think tank which arranged them, involved Stanley Fischer, the Fed vice chairman at the time, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.
Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organisation in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalising the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia.
Butina travelled to the United States in April 2015 with Alexander Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and they took part in separate meetings with Fischer and Sheets to discuss US-Russian economic relations during the administration of former President Barack Obama.
The two meetings, which have not been previously reported, reveal that Butina sought a wider circle of high-powered connections with American political leaders and special interest groups.
Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, said he did not have any details about her participation in meetings with Treasury and Federal Reserve officials.
The meetings with Fischer and Sheets were arranged by the Centre for the National Interest, a Washington foreign policy think tank that is supportive of efforts to improve US-Russia relations. Paul Saunders, its executive director, in December 2016 urged then President-elect Donald Trump to ease tensions with Russia. In articles in its magazine, The National Interest, members of the think tank have also warned of the costs to the United States of confronting Russia or getting involved in Eurasian conflicts.
The meetings were documented in a Centre for the National Interest report seen by Reuters that outlined its Russia-related activities from 2013 to 2015. The report described the meetings as helping bring together "leading figures from the financial institutions of the United States and Russia".
A judge last week ordered Butina, 29, jailed until her trial after US prosecutors argued she has ties to Russian intelligence and could flee the United States. Butina has pleaded not guilty to charges she acted as a foreign agent for Russia. She is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday for a status conference in her case.
Russia’s foreign minister told the US Secretary of State on Saturday that Butina had been detained on “fabricated charges” and should be released. Butina worked for Torshin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and served as his interpreter at various Washington events.
Fischer, an in email to Reuters, confirmed he met with Torshin and his interpreter. While he could not recall details or whether the interpreter was Butina, Fischer said the conversation involved "the state of the Russian economy" and Torshin's new role as deputy central bank governor.
Another person familiar with the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it occurred on April 7, 2015, and confirmed that Butina attended.
Saunders, the think tank's executive director, said Torshin spoke at an April 2015 event about the Russian banking system and Butina attended as Torshin's interpreter. Saunders said people at the organisation cannot recall details of Torshin's presentation.
"We were unaware of any charges or suspicions of illegal or inappropriate conduct or of any connections to Russian intelligence services," Saunders said in an email.
Federal prosecutors have accused Butina of conspiring with two American citizens and a top Russian official to influence US policy toward Russia and infiltrate a gun rights group believed to be the National Rifle Association. The NRA is an influential pro-gun lobby with close ties to Republican politicians including President Donald Trump.
Questions relating to Russia have cast a cloud over Trump's presidency.
Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, at the Washington Hilton in Feb 2017 according to her Facebook page. Torshin,a Russian senator, is a life member of the NRA and a link in Butina’s powerful contacts.
The description of the top Russian official mentioned in the indictment matches Torshin. The indictment said that beginning in about 2015 Butina and the official conspired to "advance the interests of the Russian Federation." Torshin could not be reached for comment on this article.
"I recall Mr. Torshin mentioning, as an aside, that he planned to attend a meeting of the National Rifle Association, a fact that I considered irrelevant to our conversation," Fischer wrote to Reuters.
Sheets declined to comment through Ted Smith, a spokesman for asset management firm PGIM, where Sheets currently works.
Maria butina in an image from her Facebook page.
Fischer and Sheets met with many international banking officials as part of their official duties.
The Treasury Department in April imposed sanctions on Torshin and a number of other Russian businessmen and government officials in Putin's inner circle.
The think tank's magazine hosted Trump at an event at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington in April 2016 also attended by Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to Washington at the time.
The April 2015 visit by Butina and Torshin came about a year after Obama's administration imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
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