A woman with dual US and Russian citizenship, Elena Branson has been charged with being Putin’s spy for failing to register as a foreign agent, as well as other crimes, after allegedly opening a ‘Russian propaganda centre’ in New York and communicating directly with Vladimir Putin himself.
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Elena Branson, 61, has been working illegally as a spy for the Russian government since at least 2011, according to the Department of Justice. She faces six counts, including failing to notify the Attorney General about acting as a foreign government agent, failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, conspiring to commit visa fraud, and lying to the FBI.
Branson was born in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States when he was 30 years old. According to court documents (read below), she became a citizen of the United States in 1999.
According to the prosecutor, the Manhattan-based merchant banker established the Russian Center of New York in 2012 with approval – and tens of thousands of dollars – from “the highest levels of the Russian government.”
Russian officials and their associates allegedly cited the organization’s annual youth forum and other activities promoting Russian history and culture when requesting fraudulent visas to enter the United States.
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She also served as the chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the United States of America. The group was allegedly funded by Russian government entities and was in charge of coordinating a “I Love Russia” campaign aimed at American teenagers.
Branson, also known as Elena Chernykh, fled the United States in 2020 and is still on the run.
Branson told interviewer Maria Butina – who was herself found guilty of working as a foreign agent in the United States in 2018 – that she fled because she was ‘scared’ and thought the ‘probability was very high’ that she would be arrested in America during an interview on Russian state-controlled station RT in October.
The charges against Branson were announced just hours after President Joe Biden announced a ban on Russian energy imports in response to the military action in Ukraine.
Branson was charged on Tuesday with breaking laws requiring foreign agents to register with the US for the past decade. Elena Branson’s charges were announced after a criminal complaint was unsealed in federal court in Manhattan.
The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, said, “Elena Branson… actively subverted foreign agent registration laws in the United States in order to promote Russian policies and ideology.”
“Branson is alleged to have corresponded with Putin himself and met with a high-ranking Russia minister before founding a Russian propaganda center here in New York City, the Russian Center New York.”
The center’s mission, according to its website, is “to celebrate and share Russian cultural heritage for the enrichment of our community, improve relations between the American and the Russian people, protect the rights of Russian Americans and encourage their participation in public and cultural affairs of the U.S.”
According to prosecutors, she used the centre to assist Russian officials and their associates in obtaining visas to the United States.
Documents obtained from the court say “In or about October 2018, Branson provided information to an individual about an event in the United States that Branson was coordinating through the Russian Center New York so this individual could use the event as a false pretense to obtain a visa to enter the United States when, in fact, Branson knew the individual had no intention to attend the event.”
According to her LinkedIn Branson worked as a financial strategist at Beryl Consulting Group and an advisor at Manhattan Venture Partners during all of this.
Williams said her promotional outreach included a ‘I Love Russia’ campaign aimed at American youths while she was chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the United States.
“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,” added Williams.
The FBI was questioning dozens of people associated with the Russian Community Council, also known as KSORS, according to the Daily Beast in June of last year.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the diaspora network became more aggressive and nationalistic, according to the Daily Beast. Igor Baboshkin, a former chair of KSORS, said he was pressured by the organisation after refusing to sign a statement supporting the occupation.
“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,” Williams added.
Since at least 2011, Branson has been accused of acting illegally on behalf of the Russian government, according to the criminal complaint. According to the report, she founded the Russian Center in New York after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in funding from the Russian government.
According to the complaint, she arranged meetings for herself and other Russian officials with US government officials and executives at US-based businesses on behalf of the Russian government.
She even attempted to invite then-presidential candidate Donald Trump or one of his children to a ‘Russia Forum New York’ in April 2016, according to the complaint, though there was no evidence that Trump or his children attended.
“There was no indication that the now-former President attended the referenced event,” according to the complaint, she emailed a Trump adviser after the November 2016 presidential election to offer hearty congratulations and attempt to get the president-elect to attend a World Chess Championship in Manhattan.’
Branson was photographed with Putin’s current press secretary at that event on November 10, 2016, according to the complaint.
She allegedly assisted the head of the Russian government’s Department of Foreign Economic Activity and International Relations in arranging meetings with, among others, a then-New York state senator and the management of certain U.S. companies in March 2016.
According to authorities, she coordinated a campaign to compel Hawaiian officials not to change the name of Fort Elizabeth on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which is the last remaining former Russian fort in the Hawaiian islands, through her New York centre in 2019.
They claimed she forwarded messages from Russian government officials to Hawaiian officials and organised a trip to Moscow for Hawaiian officials in charge of the potential name change to meet with high-ranking government officials.
According to authorities, Branson received funding and direction from the Russian government on a regular basis, including from the Russian embassy in Washington, as well as tasking from high-ranking Russian government officials and government-run organisations.
The FBI interviewed Branson on September 29, 2020, according to authorities, and she falsely asserted that she had never been asked by Russian officials to arrange any meetings between U.S. business leaders or politicians and officials from the Russian government.
The FBI allegedly used search warrants to gain access to eight of Branson’s electronic accounts and 34 electronic devices, including approximately 11 cellular phones, according to the complaint.
She flew to Moscow less than a month after her FBI interview, according to the report, and sold her New York City home in March.
According to the complaint, Branson wrote she was senting a letter to Putin in a email on January 30, 2012, requesting administrative support so that she could host events at the Russian Consulate in New York and the Russian Embassy in Washington.
According to the complaint, Branson emailed a person working in the New York City mayor’s office in April 2012 to thank him for assisting her in obtaining “statistical data” to help her open the Russian Center New York.
According to the complaint, she received about $173,000 in connection with her work at the centre from Russian government-controlled entities between August 2013 and November 22, 2019.
Branson told a Russian government-controlled TV station, RT, formerly known as Russia Today, in October that she had left the United States because she believed she would be arrested.
President Biden announced a ban on energy imports from Russia on Tuesday, acknowledging that the move would roil global markets and likely drive up gas prices even higher.
The majority of Americans are in favour of his decision.
A Wall Street Journal poll found that 79 percent of people support a ban on Russian oil imports, even if it raises energy prices in the United States. Only 13% said they were against it.
The ban received bipartisan support, with 77 percent of Republicans in favour and 72 percent of voters saying they would vote for former President Trump if he ran again in 2024. The moratorium on Russian oil imports was supported by 88 percent of Democrats.
The ban was necessary, according to Biden, because it would target “the main artery of Russia’s economy.” The US and its allies are attempting to financially harm Putin in order to persuade him to abandon his attack plans.
At the White House, Biden stated “Americans have rallied support – have rallied to support the Ukrainian people and made it clear we will not be part of subsidizing Putin’s war.”
During his speech, Biden rebutted Republican claims that his administration slashed oil and gas production in the United States, pointing out that he actually pumped more oil than his predecessor, Donald Trump, during his first year in office.
Biden insisted that the United States could achieve fuel independence by transitioning to clean energy, despite Republican claims that such efforts led to the country’s current vulnerable position and high gas prices.
Republicans started calling for increased fossil fuel production in the United States after Biden’s speach, while also criticising the president for considering Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as potential candidates to ease the immediate strain.
“Every purchase of Russian energy product provides financial support for Putin’s barbaric war on Ukraine. Banning Russian oil and gas imports is obviously the right thing to do, and Biden must couple this glaringly clear decision with expanded U.S. oil and gas production.”
‘The President should have the courage to stand against the Democrats’ green new deal left and step away from his administration’s war on the American oil and gas industry,’ added Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana.
Read the court documents below: