A 61-year-old woman who holds both US and Russian citizenship and who led an ‘I love Russia’ youth awareness campaign has been charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Russian government, reports said. federal prosecutors on Tuesday.
Elena Branson, who is said to have “corresponded with Putin himself,” remains at large after moving from New York to Russia about a year and a half ago, according to a Justice Department press release. But before that, according to Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, she was engaged for years “in an extensive program of influence and lobbying with funding and direction from the Russian government, while deliberately leaving the American people in the dark.” black”.
Branson faces six counts, with Manhattan prosecutors explaining how she evaded registration with the US government as a foreign agent – a charge sometimes described as “light espionage”. She is also accused of allegedly participating in a visa fraud conspiracy and making false statements to the FBI.
The charges against Branson were announced hours after President Joe Biden said the United States would ban oil imports from Russia, which he said would effectively cut off the “main artery” of the country. Russian economy. The White House, like many other countries, continues to seek avenues of economic retaliation against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Prosecutors accused Branson of trying to hide the fact that the organization she founded and led, Russian Center New York, was backed by tens of thousands of dollars in Kremlin funding. The Russian government also told him what to do with the money, prosecutors said.
Branson was also president of the Russian Community Council of the United States (also known in Russian as the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots of the United States or its acronym KSORS). In her spare time, she worked for a time with Manhattan Venture Partners, an investment banking technology firm, and before that, as a financial strategist at Beryl Consulting Group, according to her LinkedIn.
After this article was published, a spokesperson for Manhattan Venture Partners released a statement to The Daily Beast that Branson’s public employment history was “inaccurate in both scope and tenure” and that she had not been affiliated with the company since early 2016.
“Elena Branson was an informal advisor to our former economist for about a year, beginning in 2015,” the spokesperson said. “During this period, she had limited interaction with the company and no interaction with our customers or our portfolio companies.”
The Daily Beast first reported in June last year that the FBI was investigating KSORS, interviewing dozens of people associated with the group and carrying out house searches. The council, a diaspora network with the goal of popularizing Russian culture in the United States, became increasingly aggressive and nationalistic after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. A former president told the Daily Beast that he was unceremoniously expelled by the organization after refusing to co-sign a statement supporting the occupation.
An expert told the Daily Beast at the time that the gray area between celebrating cultural heritage and pushing political agendas made such investigations difficult. “The most difficult thing here is to distinguish where the ‘innocent’ events dedicated to the popularization of Russian literature, language, commemoration of dates in the common history of nations, etc. end, said Kseniya Kirilova, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, “and destructive ‘information operations’ begin.
The extent and outcome of the FBI’s investigation is still unclear, but KSORS announced in November 2021 that it would be closing. In a statement, the group directly blamed the investigation, which it said had targeted “300 members of the Russian community”, for its closure. Calling the FBI’s tactics “reminiscent of the Cold War era”, KSORS also denied engaging in political activities, according to RadioFreeEurope.
Branson was one of the KSORS community members whose home was raided by federal agents. She told state-funded news channel RT, whose US office closed earlier this month, that officers invaded her home in the early hours of September 29, 2020, confiscating computers, iPhones and documents.
“The officers asked me out and searched the apartment for several hours,” she said, RadioFreeEurope reported. “They didn’t tell me what they were looking for.”
Amid all the fuss, Branson also focused on her duties as president of the Russian Center New York.
The organization, according to its own mission statement, “a community-based organization founded in 2012 to celebrate and share Russian cultural heritage for the enrichment of our community, to improve relations between the American and Russian peoples, to protect the rights of Americans to of Russian descent and encourage their participation in the public and cultural affairs of the United States”
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan had a slightly more succinct definition of it on Monday: “a Russian propaganda center”.
“The Russian government at its highest levels, up to and including President Vladimir Putin,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, “has made it known that aggressive propaganda and recruitment of the Russian diaspora around the world is a Russian priority.” .
In direct pursuit of that goal, Williams continued, Branson “corresponded with Putin himself and met with a high-ranking Russian minister” before founding RCNY more than a decade ago.
At one point operating out of a one-bedroom twelfth-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West worth around $1 million, as reported by The Daily Beast last year, Branson and RCNY spearheaded a “campaign to identify the next generation of American leaders, cultivate information channels, and shape American policy in favor of Russian goals,” said FBI official Michael J. Driscoll.
His campaigning methods included promoting an “I Love Russia” campaign “aimed at young Americans” and organizing an annual “youth forum”. Around 2019, she and RCNY also lobbied Hawaiian state officials to stop renaming a former Russian fort on the island of Kauai. As part of the effort, Branson arranged a trip for the Hawaiians to travel to Moscow and rub shoulders with their Russian counterparts, prosecutors say.
The fort was not named by prosecutors, but it is likely Russian Fort Elizabeth, a designated monument built in 1817. Hawaiian activists ultimately failed to change its name to “Pa’ula’ula oh Hipo”.
None of these things are considered illegal in isolation, but foreign government lobbyists working in the United States must report their backgrounds to the Department of Justice, under an 83-year-old law called FARA, or Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Branson “knew” she was legally required to do so, prosecutors said.
But instead, she lied to federal agents who questioned her the same day her home was raided in 2020. In an interview, she ‘falsely claimed’ that the Russian government never asked her to coordinate meetings between U.S. business and political leaders and Moscow officials, according to the Justice Department.
Shortly after, Branson fled to Russia. In an interview with a state-controlled news channel in October 2021, Branson said she left the United States under duress, adding that it was likely she would have been arrested if she had stayed. .
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Branson’s employment history.