- A dual Russian-US national was charged with acting illegally as an unregistered foreign agent on Tuesday.
- Prosecutors say Elena Branson corresponded directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- Branson left the US for Russia in 2020 and currently remains at large, according to prosecutors.
A dual Russian and US national accused of founding a Russian propaganda center in New York City has been charged with acting illegally after failing to register as a foreign agent with the US government, according to federal prosecutors.
Elena Branson, 61, faces six criminal charges stemming from allegations that she engaged in a “wide-ranging influence and lobbying scheme” funded and directed by the Russian government while purposely misleading the US government.
Branson left the US for Russia in 2020 and currently remains at large, according to a Tuesday press release from the US District Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. Branson could not be reached for comment.
The charges come as the US aims to put increased pressure on Russia amid the country’s ongoing assault on Ukraine.
“Particularly given current global events, the need to detect and hinder attempts at foreign influence is of critical importance,” Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Prosecutors say Branson willfully evaded registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for nearly a decade while she received tasks and funding from top Russian officials to advance Russian interests. She is also accused of engaging in visa fraud conspiracy by trying to obtain fraudulent visas for Russian officials through her advocacy work.
According to federal officials, Branson’s scheme led her to the top of the Russian government, with prosecutors alleging she sent correspondence directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he was prime minister in 2012 and met with a high-ranking Russian minister to discuss “cultural projects” at a Russian center she ran in New York.
According to charging documents, Branson founded a propaganda center in New York City called the Russian Center New York, from which she led a promotional outreach campaign called “I Love Russia,” aimed at promoting Russian culture and history to American youth. Prosecutors say the Russian government wired Branson tens of thousands of dollars to run the organization.
“The Russian government at its highest levels, up to and including President Vladimir Putin, have made known that aggressive propaganda and recruitment of the Russian diaspora around the world is a Russian priority,” the district attorney’s press release said.
In 2019, the Russian Center coordinated a campaign to lobby Hawaiian officials not to change the name of a formerly Russian fort on Kauai, as well as organized a trip to Moscow for Hawaiian leaders in charge of the potential name change, court documents said.
Such work is not illegal on its own, but lobbyists for foreign governments are required to disclose their affiliations, and prosecutors say Branson knew she needed to register as a foreign agent of the Russian government but did not do so. She’s also accused of informing others of how to illegally avoid registering in the US.
Prosecutors say Branson attempted to obtain fraudulent visas for Russian officials and their associates by providing information about events at the Russian Center to be used as false pretenses to acquire the US visas.
According to the complaint, Branson also used her position to arrange meetings for herself and other Russian officials with US government officials and business executives — an accusation she denied during a 2020 interview with the FBI, according to prosecutors.
After speaking with the FBI, Branson subsequently left for Russia, according to the district attorney’s office. In an October 2021 Russian-controlled television interview, Branson reportedly said she left the US because she thought she would soon be arrested.