Maria Butina attends a rally to demand expansion of citizens' rights to bear weapons in Russia. File Photo courtesy of Press Service of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation/EPA-EFE
May 23 (UPI) -- One spinoff of the Mueller affair has been the investigation of foreign nationals in the United States, especially those with connections to the foreign capitals wanting to be introduced to important American businessmen and officials.
This is where the Russian gun rights advocate Maria Butina entered stage right. Befriending Washington insider Paul Erikson, think tank president Dmitri Simes and many other prominent Washingtonians, Butina became a Russian doorkeeper and a go-to person in the nation's capital.
Yet, she had business connections, as well. Building her image as a dedicated gun rights activist in Russia, where she started the "Right To Bear Weapons" movement, she appeared on the defense manufacturing company Promtechnologii's radar screen and ended up escorting an American NRA delegation to the entity's plant in Russia in 2015 to meet senior management.
Promtechnologii at the time was busy developing rifles for hoped-for government contracts, which never materialized beyond a sample order for the security services. However, the company's product did end up with pro-Russian separatists in Donbass and provided Promtechnologii with a large amount of publicity in the Russian Federation.
The men who own the plant are where the story gets interesting. Mikhail Abyzov, the former minister for open government affairs of Russia, and billionnaire co-owner of rail carrier Globaltrans, Konstantin Nikolaev, established the company in 2010. It was Abyzov who personally met with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Promtechnologii booth during the Sochi Investment Forum in 2010 to show off the company's products. Promtechnologii's deputy general director at that point was Alexey Rogozin, the son of the deputy prime minister for the military-industrial complex, Dmitry Rogozin.
Abyzov later moved on from the gun business and emigrated to the West, where he built a high-tech investment vehicle called Bright Capital Fund to manage his fortune and began putting money into American high-tech companies. However, the connection with Butina had been solidified.
Butina relocated to the United States, as well, and pursued a graduate degree in Washington, as well as a life as the lover of Erikson, who introduced her to many NRA executives and GOP officials on the D.C. party circuit. Butina promoted Russian firearms in Washington, including the sniper rifles manufactured by Abyzov's company. For Butina, the rest is history, as she now sits in a federal prison, convicted of being an unregistered foreign agent.
However, Abyzov's involvement in United States research and development sector continued. In 2011, Bright Capital invested $75 million into flexible solar panels maker Alta Devices, SekretFirmy magazine reported. Alta developed solar panels to mount on drones, aircraft, etc., in order to allow the vehicle to stay aloft for long periods of time. The company has cooperated with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., although Bright Capital withdrew its investment after the Russian sanctions were enacted in 2014.
In 2016, Bright Capital moved to Augmented Pixels, a Ukrainian software startup in Silicon Valley. The firm is focused on technologies and develops automatic navigation algorithms for unmanned aerial vehicles. These technologies are widely used to train special forces and improve guidance precision for UAVs.
In 2018, Bright Capital's managing director, Mikhail Chuchkevich, was arrested in Russia on suspicion of embezzlement. The Investigative Committee of Russia believes he embezzled $20 million from the Russian Venture Co. through U.S.-based Alion Energy. The company manufactures robots for automatic assembly of solar photo-voltaic plants. Bright Capital invested $15 million as the first investor of the company.
In spite of his success abroad, Abyzov's luck ran out recently as he was lured back to Moscow to attend a friend's birthday celebration and was arrested. It seems the Russian security services are not fond of Russian tycoons, and former cabinet ministers, living abroad who have knowledge of Moscow's national security and defense secrets. His arrest may also be part of a Kremlin campaign against those connected to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his allies. There have been a number of law enforcement, business and bureaucratic attacks against Medvedev's clan.
One theme is propagated throughout the entire story. Remember those sophisticated Russian rifles that ended up in the hands of pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian military in Donbass? It bears noting that the drone technologies that Abyzov invested in would come in very handy in that conflict where UAVs play a major role. And Abyzov was clearly interested in cutting-edge U.S. tech with military applications. The FBI warned American companies in the past that Russian oligarchs bearing investments may have other agendas besides economic profits.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Abyzov in Russia. However, one thing is for sure, Russian, and Chinese for that matter, interest in American high-tech with military applications will continue unabated. Repressive countries cannot match American innovation, so they have to steal it.
L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader who has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.