A dual Russian-American citizen has been charged with acting as a covert Russian agent in the United States, according to a complaint filed in the U.S. Southern District of New York, CNN reports.
Elena Branson operated organizations that “sought to spread Russian propaganda,” the documents filed on Tuesday allege. She has been charged with six counts, including acting and conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the attorney general, willfully acting as an agent while failing to register under the Foreign Registration Act, conspiring to commit visa fraud, and making false statements, according to the filing.
The complaint alleges that for at least the last decade, Branson — who immigrated from the then-Soviet Union around 1991 and became an American citizen around 1999 — operated as an agent of the Russian Government while living in the U.S. “Branson has actively sought to hide that the Russian Government was providing her with tasking and funding her activity and she has instructed her co- conspirators to do the same,” the complaint states. Prosecutors allege that she coordinated meetings for Russian officials to lobby U.S. politicians and business people, as well as operated organizations in order to publicly promote Russian government policies.
According to the complaint, Branson exchanged a series of emails around March 2016 with a Russian minister who asked Branson to organize a meeting with Donald Trump, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, or one of his children. Branson sent the minister a draft letter addressed to Trump inviting him to the Russia Forum New York in April 2016. “There is no indication that the now-former President of his children attended the referenced meeting,” the complaint reads.
It also alleges Branson operated an organization called Russian Center New York (RCNY), which the complaint claims received “tens of thousands of dollars in funding from the Russian government and have taken direct orders from Russian officials concerning events and public messaging.”
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said in a statement that Branson is alleged to have corresponded with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as met with a high-ranking Russia minister, before launching RCNY.
“Branson’s promotional outreach, including an ‘I Love Russia’ campaign aimed at American youths, exemplifies her attempts to act at the behest of the Russian government to illegally promote its interests in the United States,” Williams said in the statement. “All the while, Branson knew she was supposed to register as an agent of the Russian government but chose not to do so and, instead, instructed others regarding how to illegally avoid the same. Particularly given current global events, the need to detect and hinder attempts at foreign influence is of critical importance, and the Southern District of New York is proud to do its part in the fight against tyranny.”
Branson was interviewed by the FBI around Sept. 2020, and according to the complaint, “Branson made misrepresentations” including “falsely stating that she had never coordinated any meetings between U.S. business leaders or politicians or officials from the government of Moscow.”
The FBI searched the RCNY office around the time of the interview. The following month, Branson allegedly fled to Moscow.
According to the complaint, during an interview in 2021 with RT, the Russian state-controlled network, Branson said she left the U.S. after being interviewed by the FBI because she was “scared” and believed the “probability was very high” that she would be arrested if she remained in the country.
The charges against Branson come as tensions between the countries continue to build following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the invasion, the U.S. is cracking down on Russian propaganda, and disinformation channels including RT America are shutting down as multiple U.S. companies sever ties with Russia.