A woman who ran an “I love Russia” campaign in the US has been charged with acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government.
Elena Branson, who has both American and Russian citizenships, allegedly received tens of thousands of dollars from the Russian government to run the Russian Center New York, which she founded in 2012.
Prosecutors described the organisation as a “propaganda centre” that coordinated activities like an “I love Russia” campaign promoting Russian history and culture, which was aimed at American young people.
‘Direct correspondence with Putin’
The 61-year-old was accused of corresponding directly with a high-ranking Russian minister and President Vladimir Putin before founding the centre.
The Russian Center New York also lobbied Hawaiian officials not to change the name of a formerly Russian fort on the island of Kauai and organised a trip for Hawaiian officials to meet with Russian counterparts in Moscow, New York prosecutors said.
While these activities are not illegal, US lobbyists for foreign governments must disclose their affiliation to the US Department of Justice.
Ms Branson faces six criminal counts over allegations that she failed to register with the US government as a foreign agent and took part in a visa fraud conspiracy.
She has also been accused of helping others illegally avoid registering as Russian agents.
“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,” US Attorney Damian Williams said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ms Branson ‘at large’
Ms Branson left the US after September 2020 for Russia and remains at large, federal prosecutors said.
The criminal complaint said her work for the Russian government included arranging meetings for herself and Russian officials with US government officials and company executives.
In April 2016 she allegedly invited then-presidential candidate Donald Trump or one of his children to a “Russia Forum”, but there was no sign he or his family attended the event.
The complaint said she was given about $173,000 (£132,000) between August 2013 and 22 November 2019 from Russian government-controlled entities in connection with her work at the centre.
Ms Branson could not be reached for comment.
She previously told the FBI during a September 2020 interview that she had never been asked by Russian officials to coordinate meetings with US officials.
The following month she told a Russian state-controlled television channel that she had left the US because she thought she would probably get arrested.