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That encounter "should have set off alarm bells," said one former White House official.

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The outreach to Republicans marks a dramatic shift in Russia's attempts to influence U. But over the past five years, Russia has also been fostering a growing affinity on the right. The dinner at the George Hotel, hosted by conservative activist and Rockefeller scion George O' Neill Jr., was part of the festivities surrounding the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event run by evangelicals to forge new, if informal, diplomatic ties through shared spiritual principles."We were some of the biggest cold warriors ever," says Paul Erickson, a veteran Republican activist who attended the Feb. In war zones like Syria, says Graham, Putin has been a stronger defender of Christians than U. Putin "sees himself in the Middle East as defending the Christian remnant that is left in Syria." In 2015 Graham met privately with Putin, who has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, while visiting Moscow at the Russian Orthodox Church's invitation.They planned a conference on persecuted Christians, which will be held in Washington in May. "He said he would do all he could from his office to help."Catholic leaders like Brian Brown have been impressed by the Russian Orthodox Church's decision to tighten policies on abortion and uphold traditional marriage."It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States," she wrote in the summer of 2015 in the National Interest, a magazine published by the Center for the National Interest.The same Washington think tank hosted a foreign policy speech for candidate Trump in April 2016, where Trump was introduced to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to the Wall Street Journal.Since 2014, Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, has worked closely with the church and with Russian anti-abortion and antigay marriage activists like Family

In late January, Brown visited Moscow to seek the Duma's support for his group's new manifesto on those issues.

NRA allies say the group is happy to work with international firearms-advocacy groups to advance mutual interests.

The NRA forked over some $30 million to help elect Trump, about two and a half times the amount it shelled out on the 2012 election, despite his previous support for gun-control measures.

(The group did not respond to a request to comment for this story.) "I am deeply grateful for the friendship of the American NRA," Butina, now a graduate student in international relations at American University in Washington, wrote in an email to TIME.

"My work has been focused exclusively on the expansion of gun rights--very publicly."But Butina's attraction to the Republican Party runs broader than common ground on gun rights.

According to a February Gallup poll, nearly one-third of Republicans now say they have a favorable impression of Putin, up from 12% two years ago and far higher than Putin's rating among Democrats. There is a huge school within the conservative movement and the Republican Party that says you can't look at these people through the same lens of the Cold War."What would right-wing activists in the U. Evangelicals have discovered common ground with Moscow's nationalist and ultraconservative push--led by the Russian Orthodox Church--to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.