A federal court in New York unsealed a complaint today charging a dual Russian and U.S. citizen with acting and conspiring to act in the United States illegally as an agent of the Russian government, willfully failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), as well as conspiring to commit visa fraud and making false statements to the FBI.
According to court documents, Elena Branson, 61, beginning in at least 2011, worked on behalf of the Russian government and Russian officials to advance Russian interests in the United States, including by coordinating meetings for Russian officials to lobby U.S. political officials and businesspersons, and by operating organizations in the United States for the purpose of publicly promoting Russian government policies. Branson never notified the Attorney General as she was required to, including by registering under FARA.
“As alleged, Branson engaged in a wide-ranging influence and lobbying scheme with funding and direction from the Russian government – all while deliberately leaving the American people in the dark,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The department will continue to expose these serious crimes and shine a light on foreign malign influence.”
“As alleged, Elena Branson, a dual U.S. – Russian national, actively subverted foreign agent registration laws in the United States in order to promote Russian policies and ideology,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams for the Southern District of New York. “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. In connection with this pursuit, 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. 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. 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.”
“The evidence gathered in the Branson case shows she is a serial offender in violating the Foreign Agents Registration Action in order to promote Russian interests,” said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “While living in the United States for nearly a decade, she allegedly took money and direction from Russian government officials – including some at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. – as she arranged meetings for Russian officials to lobby U.S. officials. The FBI and our partners will continue to investigate and stop individuals who hide their work for foreign governments, like the one in Moscow.”
According to court documents, the Russian government has sought to spread Russian propaganda and to use Russian citizens in the United States and elsewhere to make connections with U.S. community leaders, politicians and businesspersons, in order to advance Russian government objectives. Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have made public statements acknowledging this foreign policy strategy of the Russian government.
As part of that Russian government effort, beginning in at least approximately 2011, Branson, a native of Russia, acted illegally as an agent of the Russian government while living in the United States, by not registering pursuant to FARA or otherwise notifying the Attorney General as required by a separate statute. Among other things, in or about 2012, after receiving approval from the highest levels of the Russian government, Branson incorporated an organization headquartered in Manhattan, New York, named the Russian Center New York (RCNY). She sent correspondence to then-Prime Minister Putin and met with a high-ranking Russian government minister in connection with the initiation of her activities for the Russian government in the United States.
Branson received tens of thousands of dollars in funding from the Russian government for the RCNY and used the RCNY to host events and engage in public messaging at the direction of the Russian government and Russian officials. Branson was directed to, among other things, host events designed to consolidate the Russian-speaking youth community in the United States in exchange for funding. For example, Branson and the RCNY hosted an annual youth forum which was funded in part by an entity controlled by the government of Moscow.
Throughout her work as a Russian agent in the United States, Branson received funding and direction from the Russian government, including from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and received tasking from high-level Russian government officials and Russian government-run organizations. At the same time, however, Branson actively sought to hide that the Russian government was providing her with tasking and funding her activity, and she instructed her co-conspirators to do the same. She also cautioned others against using language in describing their activities that would draw attention to FARA registration obligations for herself and the organizations.
As alleged, in or about 2019, Branson coordinated through the RCNY a campaign to lobby Hawaiian officials not to change the name of a fort located on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, which is the last remaining formerly Russian fort in the Hawaiian-islands and is significant to the Russian government. Among other things, Branson provided Hawaiian officials with messages from Russian government officials and organized a trip to Moscow for Hawaiian officials responsible for the potential name change to meet with high-ranking Russian government personnel.
In addition to the RCNY, Branson served as a chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the USA (KSORS), which is funded at least in part by various Russian government-run entities. Among other things, KSORS coordinated an “I Love Russia” campaign in the United States and organized youth forums focused on the promotion of Russian history and culture to American youths. Branson used the KSORS website to promote messages from the Russian Embassy and organized KSORS events approved by the Russian Ambassador to the United States. When Branson sought financial support from a government of Moscow official for the KSORS website, Branson reported that the purpose of the KSORS website was to spread information “about the activities of organizations created by Russian compatriots to form a positive image of Russia and Moscow among Americans.”
According to the complaint, Branson’s work on behalf of the Russian government also included arranging meetings for herself and other Russian officials with U.S. government officials and executives at businesses based in the United States. For example, in March 2016, Branson worked to arrange meetings for the head of the Department of Foreign Economic Activity and International Relations for the Government of Moscow with, among others, a New York state senator and the management of certain U.S. companies.
Branson also participated in a scheme to obtain fraudulent visas for Russian officials and their associates, by providing information about RCNY events to those individuals for using as false pretenses to obtain visas to enter the United States.
The FBI interviewed Branson on Sept. 29, 2020. During this interview, among other things, Branson falsely claimed that she was never asked by Russian officials to coordinate any meetings between U.S. business leaders or politicians and officials from the government of Moscow. Branson subsequently left the United States for Russia. On or about Oct. 15, 2021, during an interview on a Russian government-controlled television station, Branson stated that she left the United States because she thought it was likely that she would be arrested.
Branson is charged with: (1) conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Attorney General, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; (2) acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Attorney General, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; (3) conspiring to evade FARA registration, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; (4) willfully failing to register under FARA, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; (5) conspiring to commit visa fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; and (6) making false statements to the FBI, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Branson left the United States for Russia in 2020 and remains at large.