Saint Basil the Great clearly earned his nickname. The Turkish holy man was a scholar who aided victims of drought and who fought prostitution. Sadly, Basil’s views on gun ownership are unknown—he died in 379. Yet a charity named after the saint may turn out to be one key connection between the National Rifle Association and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The F.B.I. and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating meetings between N.R.A. officials and powerful Russian operatives, trying to determine if those contacts had anything to do with the gun group spending $30 million to help elect Donald Trump—triple what it invested on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012. The use of foreign money in American political campaigns is illegal. One encounter of particular interest to investigators is between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian banker at an N.R.A. dinner.
The Russian wooing of N.R.A. executives goes back to at least 2011, when that same banker and politician, Alexander Torshin, befriended David Keene, who was then president of the gun-rights organization. Torshin soon became a “life member,” attending the N.R.A.’s annual conventions and introducing comrades to other gun-group officials. In 2015, Torshin welcomed an N.R.A. delegation to Moscow that included Keene and Joe Gregory, then head of the “Ring of Freedom” program, which is reserved for top donors to the N.R.A. Among the other hosts were Dmitry Rogozin, who until last month was the deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, and Sergei Rudov, head of the Saint Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, one of Russia’s wealthiest philanthropies.
It’s possible that the men were merely bonding over a shared love of firearms. Mike Carpenter, a Russian specialist who worked in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, laughs at the notion. “The Russian state is run by a K.G.B. elite that wants nothing less than to have an armed citizenry,” Carpenter says. “Rogozin is a heavyweight in Russian politics. . . . Torshin has a direct line to Putin . . . and also has possible ties to organized crime. Rudov is the right-hand man of Konstantin Malofeev,who is sort of a paleo-conservative, ultra-nationalist figure who bankrolls a lot of projects involving mercenaries in Ukraine.” Carpenter sees how a dark money trail could connect the Kremlin to the gun lobby. “Those three would only meet with N.R.A. officials if there were some concerted effort by senior members of the Russian government to try and co-opt the N.R.A. politically,” he continues. “And they are all money men. They can throw tens of millions around.” (Efforts to reach Torshin, Rogozin, Rudov, and Malofeev were unsuccessful. Malofeev has denied aiding the invasion of Ukraine.)