A woman who ran a Russia propaganda center in New York City was charged on Tuesday for acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russian government.
Elena Branson, 61, who has both US and Russian citizenship, ran the Russian Center New York, which she founded in 2012, receiving thousands of dollars from the Russian government.
Branson received a total of $ 173,000 between August 2013 to November 2019 in connection to her work at the center, Sky News reported.
The center reportedly coordinated activities such as an “I love Russia” campaign aimed at American young people that promoted Russian history and culture.
Branson also serves as chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the USA, an organization with the goal of “[supporting] organizations of Russian compatriots, to preserve and popularize the Russian language and cultural and historical heritage in the United States ”, according to group’s website.
Branson reportedly even invited Donald Trump or one of his children to a “Russia Forum New York” in 2016, though there is no evidence that Trump or any family members attended.
Prosecutors said that Branson, who left the US for Russia in 2020 and still remains at large, corresponded with high-ranking Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, about her campaign as Russia increased their propaganda efforts in the US.
Russian Center New York also lobbied officials in Hawaii not to change the name of a formerly Russian fort, Fort Elizabeth, on the island of Kauai, organizing a trip for Hawaiian officials to meet with Russian delegates in Moscow.
Branson has been charged with conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general as well as taking part in a visa fraud conspiracy, the Associated Press reported.
Branson is also being accused of helping others illegally avoid registering as foreign agents.
While none of Branson’s educational or diplomacy activities are illegal, all U.S. agents for foreign governments must disclose their affiliation to the Department of Justice. “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,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.
“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,” said Williams.
During an interview with the FBI in September 2020, Branson said that she had never been asked by Russian officials to arrange meetings with US officials.
The following month, while speaking with a Russian-state controlled TV station, Branson said she left the US because she thought she would most likely be arrested.