Six years before he was exposed for allegedly managing a covert agent on U.S. soil, the Russian politician Alexander Torshin hosted young Americans visiting Moscow as part of two cultural exchange programs, including one that has drawn the FBI’s scrutiny.
The gregarious Torshin regularly hosted U.S. visitors in the ornate chambers of Russia’s parliament, where he gushed about his love of guns, bourbon and America.
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“He was friendly, traveled to the U.S. often and enjoyed sharing his experiences of visiting small-town America,” recalls one participant who went on two trips sponsored by the Russian government.
A photo posted on Facebook by one of the exchange programs shows several young visitors, including the student body president of Princeton University, meeting with Torshin over tea and cookies. (The FBI is not known to have investigated that program. None of the students, or Torshin, has been accused of wrongdoing.)
It wasn’t until years later that Torshin would emerge as a major figure in the Trump-Russia saga — a man whom federal prosecutors say oversaw the accused Russian operative Mariia Butina’s efforts to infiltrate Republican Party circles, including the National Rifle Association, to push them toward more pro-Russia policies. Torshin himself has attended annual NRA meetings dating back to at least 2011.
Many of the first-class student exchanges were officially organized by the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., and included top-flight meals, airfare and hotel accommodations. But the center’s exchange programs abruptly stopped in fall 2013, after FBI counterintelligence agents urgently located dozens of trip participants and told them the program was an elaborate cover for a Washington-based Russian spy recruiting effort.
The agents said the Russians had prepared dossiers on some of the most promising participants, two of the former students told POLITICO. They pressed for every detail of the program, including whom the students met, where they went and what they discussed. They also said that Russian government official who oversaw the program — from a mansion about a mile and a half from the White House — was a suspected spy and would be kicked out of the U.S. soon.
“They said they had a great degree of confidence that the trips were part of an effort to spot and assess future intelligence assets,” the participant, a former student government leader and Russian-language student, said of the three FBI agents who questioned him for more than an hour. “They told us it was standard Russian spycraft.”
The FBI’s interest in that cultural exchange program for young American political and business leaders was reported at the time, including a single, passing reference to Torshin. But the details of his involvement in the exchanges is a new revelation, as is his participation in the second exchange program for student body presidents at American universities dating back to at least 2010.
The new detail fills out the picture of the Russian lawmaker — now deputy governor of his country’s central bank — who is a longtime close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It shows that Torshin’s collaboration with Butina was not his first connection to a Kremlin-linked effort to recruit Americans, and underscores that covert Russian spy operations in the U.S. have been underway for years, well before Trump launched his 2016 presidential bid.
While Torshin is not identified by name in the Butina court filings, several sources close to the investigation told POLITICO he is the Russian official described as directing Butina’s alleged efforts to establish “unofficial lines of communications with U.S. politicians and political organizations” and “to send reports, seek direction, and receive orders in furtherance of the conspiracy” from Moscow.
His name has also shown up in investigations by Congress, the Federal Election Commission and, reportedly, special counsel Robert Mueller, into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Those include examinations of possible attempts to establish a back channel between Trump and Putin, as well as possible efforts to illegally funnel Russian campaign contributions to Trump.
But his meetings with American students earlier in the decade, coupled with the government’s recent allegations in the Butina case, suggest that Torshin may be a more significant Kremlin operative, and for a longer time, than was previously understood.
“All of that needs to be explored now through the lens that Torshin is a handler for Russian intelligence operatives,” said Max Bergmann, a State Department senior international security adviser in the Obama administration. “The suspicion has to be raised, given what is laid out in [the Butina] indictment, that this wasn’t his first rodeo.”
Torshin did not respond to requests for an interview, but has denied any wrongdoing related to the current investigations. The 29-year-old Butina, indicted by federal prosecutors in July, has pleaded not guilty to charges of acting as an illegal foreign agent — including, according to prosecutors, by using sex as a means of influence.
U.S. government Kremlinologists have tracked Torshin, 64, for years, at least since his first known visit to the U.S. in 2004.
As a rising star in Putin’s United Russia Political party, Torshin became an ally of the Russian leader. Putin tapped him that same year to run a sensitive parliamentary investigation investigating the horrific terrorist siege of a school in the Russian town of Beslan; many observers considered the resulting report a whitewash that absolved Russian security forces.
By 2010, Torshin had become a leading United Russia voice in the Russian Duma, a trusted Putin aide on sensitive security issues and, most likely, a go-to ally for important missions that didn’t fall under his official portfolio, according to Bergmann and other former officials.
Later that year, for instance, Torshin helped orchestrate a secret spy swap between the U.S. and Russia after the FBI arrested 10 Russian operatives who had been living undercover in America for years.
Also in 2010, Torshin met with a delegation of 15 student body presidents from American universities as part of an exchange program paid for, and sponsored by, a Russian government agency focused on “youth affairs.” Because the trip was designed to mirror a popular and high-profile congressional exchange program, the students were given a briefing by top White House and congressional Russia hands, including Michael McFaul, then the National Security Council’s director for Russian affairs and later the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
On the conference call, which has not previously been reported, McFaul and others gave the students background about Russia — but also cautioned them to be on guard about unusual overtures, including from their Russian student counterparts, said one participating student who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear the trips risk could taint their professional reputations. McFaul told POLITICO he doesn’t recall the discussion, but his role in the pre-trip briefing was referenced in some university news releases at the time.
Thanks to the briefing, “we went in with our eyes open” about how, in Russia, even a friendly interest in sharing information or establishing long-term relationships, might not be what it seemed, the former student said. He added that the trip went smoothly and nothing appeared suspicious about meetings with Torshin and at least two other Putin allies connected to the current Trump-Russia saga.
The next March, Torshin met with another set of students on an exchange program organized through the same youth affairs agency, in the meeting posted on Facebook.
And the year after that, he met with older groups of young leaders sponsored by the Russian Cultural Center, according to the participant on two trips and another person who went on one exchange.
By the fall of 2013, the FBI was well into an investigation into that exchange program, and had come to believe it was a front for developing young Americans as assets, the two participants said. The D.C. chapter is just one of more than 80 Russian cultural and science centers in various countries that U.S. intelligence officials suspect of being a front for all manner of spy operations.
The cultural center trips were popular among well-connected young Washingtonians interested in spending a week in an exotic foreign country with everything, down to the visa application fee, covered by the sponsor.
But the young former student government leader, who went on two trips in 2012 and 2013, said the organizers also “recruited on their own and made the determination who to select.”
“They had a specific type of person they were looking for,” he said. “Future leaders.”
When the FBI began contacting trip participants in late September and October of 2013, many were shocked at what the agents were telling them. The agents began by reading from a printed card with details of about what they were investigating, including how they believed Russian Cultural Center Director Yury Zaitsev was overseeing the alleged spy recruitment operation, according to the two participants, both of whom shared details of their trips and FBI interviews with POLITICO.
The discussions were “very frank,” according to one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officials at the time. The official said the agents’ interviews were exhaustive, in part because Russian intelligence operatives excel at being unobtrusive and patiently laying the groundwork for relationships they hope to develop over years or even decades.
In hindsight, the second trip participant said there were indications that the group’s extremely generous Russian hosts might have had ulterior motives.
During his interview, that participant told the FBI agents that he thought it was “unusual” that the group had been granted such high-level meetings, including with top-ranking officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The agents were particularly interested in any details about those meetings, he said, “and why are these kids meeting with these super high-level people.”
“It seemed like they were trying to foster the exchange in a professional and productive way,” the second participant said. But, he added: “If one person out of a group of 20 becomes an asset for them, then I suppose it’s worth it for them to pay the whole group for the trip.”
After hearing from the FBI, some students backed out of the next scheduled trip. The former participant on two trips, who remains active in other efforts to promote U.S.-Russian relations, said he believed the FBI investigation — reported at the time by Mother Jones and the Washington Post — effectively ended the Russian Cultural Center exchange programs.
In all, the FBI believes that at least 125 people went on cultural exchange programs involving Zaitsev and the Russian Cultural Center, including grad students, non-governmental organization staffers, political aides to national and state officials and business executives. The former FBI official declined to comment on whether agents have investigated other cultural exchange programs, such as those sponsored by Moscow’s youth affairs agency, that also included Torshin.
As Butina and Torshin allegedly ramped up their U.S.-based influence operation ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Butina attended numerous events at the Russian Cultural Center. She even met with the organization’s director for a dinner that was caught on camera by FBI officials, as POLITICO recently reported.
That director was a suspected Russian intelligence operative just like his predecessor, Zaitsev, and also left the U.S. following FBI investigations, federal authorities allege in Butina’s case. Both men denied wrongdoing.
Robert Driscoll, Butina’s lawyer, scoffed at the notion that Torshin is a master spy, and said his client’s connections to the Russian Cultural Center were merely social. He added that in his frequent talks with Butina, she has described Torshin as someone who genuinely has come to love America — especially Nashville, where the two attended an Alan Jackson country music concert while there for the NRA convention.
“My impression of him from knowing Mariia is that she viewed him as a mentor and as someone who was helpful to her, with her gun rights group and personally,” Driscoll said. “He helped raise her profile, and she got to travel and attend different events with him.”
The participant on two of the cultural trips said Torshin was especially popular with U.S. visitors, in part because he seemed most interested in small talk and sharing his tales of traveling to the far corners of the United States.
“He was always eager and happy to meet with Americans,” he said.