May 2-3, 2022 -- Russian femmes fatales and Republican Party politics haunt Florida Panhandle race

publication date: May 2, 2022
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May 2-3, 2022 -- Russian femmes fatales and Republican Party politics haunt Florida Panhandle race
Buried in the bowels of the Moscow headquarters of the Sluzhba vneshney razvedki PR – the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service’s PR Directorate – is a branch dedicated to the running of American politicians who are sympathetic to Russia and the policies of its neo-Cold War president, Vladimir Putin. The files of the branch are likely as flush with dossiers on pro-Russian U.S. politicians as those of its counterpart branches that are responsible for “running” politicians in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Hungary, Poland, and other democratic countries under assault by the forces of autocracy.

The dossier of one of the SVR’s prized American politicians would be incomplete without the newspaper column that appeared in the July 22, 2018 issue of the Pensacola News Journal, the home district newspaper for then-U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz. Gaetz was facing a Republican primary race against a U.S. Marine Corps veteran named Chris Dosev. The editorial, written by Andy Marlette, was titled “Marlette: It's Moscow Matt vs. Dollar-bill Dosev!” Marlette pulled no punches in the editorial, stating that “the makeup-wearing, camera-glaring incumbent Matt Gaetz recently got an official tweet endorsement from Comrade Trump, just days before the American president sided against our country with a hostile foreign nation. Oops!”The paper's description of Dosev was not pejorative. It was citing his small donations as compared to the scads of campaign cash being pumped into Gatez's coffers.

Why would Gaetz be called “Moscow Matt” in a newspaper that serves a very conservative solid “red” Republican district of Florida? It has more to do with Gaetz’s own links to Russia, including a scheme to rush Russian women from tourist to permanent resident “green card” status, and, ultimately, U.S. citizenship, than in the fact that Trump, appearing with Putin at their summit in Helsinki, Finland, had publicly sided with the Russian leader over the Central Intelligence Agency amid charges and denials that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But the SVR file on Gaetz would contain more than a mere editorial pointing out that Trump’s number one acolyte in Florida was nicknamed “Moscow Matt.” In citing Gaetz’s ties to real estate interests on what has become known as the “Redneck Riviera,” the editorial also made mention of Gaetz’s district’s “over-priced vacation homes where they can shack up with their mistresses.” Those beachside condominiums and gated residences had also drawn the interest of Russian oligarch money launderers eager to cement their financial and political stakes in the Sunshine State by arranging U.S. citizenship for Russian women dangling the prospect of marriage to the unsuspecting rubes working their way up the food chain of the Republican Party.

One of those who may have taken the bait is Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins, an unimpressive Republican looking for higher office. After first arriving in the United States as a tourist in 2011, Mariya Yurevna, [left with Gaetz] a Russian citizen with a typical academic resume for a Putin apparatchik – college studies and degrees from Moscow State University, as well as public institutions in Ufa, Bashkiria and Chelyabinsk, Urals Federal District – met Calkins on Navarre Beach in Florida. In June 2012 Calkins and Yurevna were married.

The year prior to Yurevna’s arrival in the United States, another attractive female alumnus of Moscow State University was arrested in New York by the FBI and charged with being part of a Russian intelligence “illegals” espionage operation in the United States. Anna Chapman, alias Anya Kushchenko,  the daughter of the Soviet ambassador to Kenya Vasily Kushchenko, who was also a senior KGB officer. In 2001, Chapman had met 21-year old British student, Alex Chapman, at a London party. After a few months, Anya Kushchenko and Chapman were married in Moscow. [right] Anya obtained British citizenship and a United Kingdom passport in the name of Anna Chapman. Almost immediately, Chapman began working her way up the social networking ladder in London. In 2005, Anna separated from her husband and she began frequently meeting Russian “friends,” individuals who were actually Russian intelligence agents passing on orders from Moscow Center.

Anna soon became a fixture at social events in London’s upscale Mayfair and Kensington. She also landed jobs with NetJets Europe and Barclays, in addition to the Navigator hedge fund. Anna and Alex Chapman were formally divorced in 2006. In 2007, Anna, still using her married name of Chapman, moved to the Wall Street area of Manhattan and she began climbing the New York social ladder. Chapman’s entrees to the New York socialite scene were facilitated by her boyfriend, the Israeli-Moroccan New York restaurateur Michel Bittan. Via Bittan and the Wall Street business crowd, Chapman was introduced to the political movers-and-shakers in both Democratic and Republican politics. In 2010, the gig was up for Chapman and nine of her SVR colleagues, all part of a Russian intelligence “illegals” political influence operation in the United States. She and her comrades were later exchanged in a spy swap, the largest of its kind since 1986. One of those held by Russia and exchanged for Chapman and her colleagues was former Russian military intelligence officer and British MI-6 double agent Sergei Skripal. And, as a reminder for those who fall for Russian intelligence femmes fatales working for Vladimir Putin, it should be noted that Alex Chapman, who knew some but not all of Anna’s secrets, died from an alleged suspicious drug overdose in Bournemouth, England in 2015. Three years later, Skripal and his daughter Yulia were allegedly poisoned in Salisbury, England by Putin’s agents, who used the nerve agent Novichok.

Having arrived in the United States a year after Anya Kushchenko’s espionage ring was rounded up, Yurevna was fast-tracked, with the help of Gaetz and other influential Republicans, to permanent residency status in the United States. In 2017, Yurevna, still a green card holder, and her husband attended a Donald Trump rally in Pensacola and voiced their support for the president to a local reporter.

In 2018, Yurevna became a U.S. citizen at a ceremony presided over by a Republican-nominated federal judge. Yurevna soon signed on as a legislative aide to Florida  Representative Mike Hill, a rather surprising choice for the U.S. Air Force veteran and conservative Republican during a time when Russian influence in American politics was being investigated by U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller. Following her stint in Tallahassee at the legislature and with only a few years as a U.S. citizen, Yurevna announced in January of this year that she was running for the vacated Florida House of Representatives seat for District 3, which spans largely rural areas of Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties.

Soon, Yurevna was racking up endorsements from Gaetz and other far-right Republican politicians, including Florida state Representative Anthony Sabatini, who called for Black Lives Matter protesters to be shot and President Biden to be impeached for failing to nominate a white person to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Stephen Breyer. Yurevna has been careful not to publicly condemn the Putin regime. She has saved her vitriol for the Soviet Union under the Communist Party, not the Russian Federation under Putin’s fascist rule. Her campaign material states that under the USSR, Yurevna “experienced firsthand the severe restrictions on freedom and personal liberties under the Communist regime.”

Democrats, Republicans, and independents in the Florida Panhandle suspect that Gaetz and his political cronies are, at the very least, knowledgeable about the Russians trafficking young Russian women into the United States in order to hook them up with individuals like James Calkins. They have reasons to be suspicious. In 2017, the year that Gaetz helped Yurevna receive a fast-tracked green card, the Republican congressman was the lone vote in the House against an anti-human trafficking bill, the Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act, which received a unanimous vote in the Senate. In 2021, Gaetz came under a federal criminal investigation for being involved in an international and interstate underage sex trafficking ring involving convicted former Seminole County, Florida Tax Collector Joel Greenberg. Federal prosecutors in Orlando, who have repeatedly delayed Greenberg’s sentencing hearing because of his cooperation in the probe of Gaetz, admitted the case has taken a direction they did not expect. Does that mean it involves a larger operation involving linking up Russian women with Republican politicians in Florida and other states?

Based on the political activities of another female Russian intelligence agent, Maria Butina, [left] Gaetz may be the subject of a U.S. counter-intelligence probe. Hailing from the Altai Republic in Siberia, Butina, in 2011 – the same year that Yurevna first traveled to Florida – established a Russian intelligence front called “Right to Bear Arms,” a pro-gun rights organization in a country that severely restricts the private ownership of weapons. Butina began to travel back and forth to the United States as the “special assistant” of Russian Duma Senator Alexander Torshin. Butina was, in reality, a Russian spy with the mission of penetrating the far-right circles of the Republican Party.  She hit paydirt in 2013, when she met GOP operative and South Dakota resident Paul Erickson in Russia. Butina and Erickson had both a professional and amorous relationship, establishing a business, Bridges LLC, while Butina also attended American University in Washington, DC to obtain a Master’s Degree in International Relations. After Torshin became deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank, Russian funding flowed to the National Rifle Association thanks to Butina’s newly-found influence with the gun lobby’s senior leadership. Butina also helped expand Russia’s influence within the Republican Party, the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, and, through, right-wing conspiracy theorist Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock, the crackpot group QAnon. One of her chief defenders in the Republican Party was Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California. Not only was Rohrabacher part of the January 6, 2021 insurrection mob at the Capitol but he has been a consistent defender of Putin and his regime. In 2018, Butina was arrested by the FBI for being an unregistered agent of the Russian government. She was convicted and sentenced to, of all places, the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution in the same city where Yurevna was a Florida House legislative aide. Butina was released in 2019 and deported to Russia.

In another cautionary note concerning relationships with Russian femmes fatales, Butina’s boyfriend, Erickson, was convicted on federal charges of money laundering and wire fraud involving an oil development scam. One of those who offered the FBI assistance in their investigation of Erickson was his erstwhile girlfriend, Butina. Erickson pleaded guilty to the charges and in July 2020 was sentenced to seven years in prison. On January 19, 2021, Trump granted Erickson a full pardon.

After the cases involving Russian spies Anya Kushchenko and Maria Butina, conventional wisdom would dictate caution on the part of the Florida Republican Party with regard to Mariya Yurevna Calkins. But this is not the Republican Party of Connie Mack, Jeb Bush, and Charlie Crist. This party supports maintaining a $350 million investment of the state pension fund in sanctioned Russian corporations. It gladly accepts campaign donations from Russian oligarchs, who own businesses and property in Florida. In other words, the Florida Republican Party is not much different than Putin’s vanity political contrivance, United Russia. So far, there is a major difference between Yurevna and her two Russian predecessors in the SVR's political “honey trap” game. She has not been caught – yet.

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