Woman hid Russian ties while pushing Putin propaganda, US says

A woman who led an ‘I Love Russia’ propaganda campaign in the United States as a citizen of both countries was charged on Tuesday with flouting federal law by failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, prosecutors said.

Since at least 2011, prosecutors say, the woman, Elena Branson, was a foot soldier in President Vladimir V. Putin’s aggressive campaign to “advance Russian interests” in America, communicating directly with Mr. Putin about his activities. and organizing meetings for the Russians. officials to pressure US business and government leaders.

Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Ms Branson “knew she was supposed to register as a Russian government agent but chose not to”. Instead, he added, she “taught others how to illegally avoid the same.”

As well as being charged with violating foreign agent registration laws, Ms Branson, 61, was charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud and lying to federal agents. She left the United States after FBI agents questioned her in September 2020 and was free on Tuesday, officials said. She could not be reached for comment. It was unclear if she had an attorney.

The charges against Ms Branson were announced as the US government and corporate America continued to isolate Russia economically as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine, which began around two weeks ago. President Biden on Tuesday banned the import of Russian oil and natural gas into the United States, and brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Starbucks suspended operations in Russia.

Without explicitly referring to the war, Mr Williams said “current world events” highlighted “the need to detect and thwart attempts at foreign influence” of the kind his office had accused Ms Branson of.

Her main vehicle for the propaganda initiative was the Russian Center New York, an entity she created in 2012 with the help of tens of thousands of dollars from the Russian government, according to an unsealed criminal complaint in district court. Manhattan American. Ms Branson ran the center from her Manhattan home, the complaint says.

On its website, the center describes itself as a “community-based organization” whose mission is “to help the people of two great countries realize that true cooperation and harmony will benefit us both.”

Ms Branson obtained approval from “the highest levels of the Russian government” before starting the center, prosecutors said. She also headed the Russian Community Council of the United States, which was funded at least in part by Russian government entities, the complaint says.

She used the organizations as platforms to, among other things, organize “events aimed at strengthening the community of Russian-speaking young people in the United States” and organize “youth forums focused on promoting Russian history and culture. Russians to young Americans,” prosecutors said. .

The contacts Ms. Branson developed included an unidentified New York state senator, the complaint says. The senator’s connection to Ms Branson is mentioned in the complaint about an October 2015 email sent to him by a Russian official with the subject line “A friendly hockey match between the Moscow Interior Ministry and the NYPD!”

In the email, the complaint says, the manager asked Ms Branson to work with the police department to arrange such a match. Ms Branson replied by email that the senator “was willing to meet with a delegation from the Moscow government” and that he had contacted, but had not yet heard from, the police commissioner.

In a subsequent email with the subject “New York” that Ms. Branson sent to the Moscow official and two others, she laid out an itinerary that included a meeting with the state senator, dinner with a ” Influential American” unidentified and another. have dinner with the senator on the Upper West Side. The complaint does not indicate whether the dinners actually took place.

Ms. Branson’s other efforts to spread Russian propaganda, according to the complaint, included lobbying officials in Hawaii against renaming a fort on the island of Kauai that is the last remaining original Russian structure in the Hawaiian Islands.

The site, Fort Elizabeth, is a National Historic Landmark administered as Fort Elizabeth Russian State Historical Park. It was built in 1817 through an alliance between the Russian-American company and a native chief and combines Hawaiian construction with Russian design, its website says.

As part of the persuasion campaign, the complaint says, Ms. Branson arranged a trip to Moscow for Hawaiian officials allegedly responsible for a possible name change to meet with senior Russian government officials.

About a month after Ms Branson was questioned by FBI agents in New York in 2020, she flew to Moscow and does not appear to have returned to the United States since, prosecutors said. About a year ago, prosecutors say, she sold the New York property where she lived and which served as the Russian Center’s office.

In an interview published by Russian state-controlled media RT in October, Ms Branson said she left the US for Moscow because she was ‘scared’ and thought the ‘probability was very high’ that she would be arrested if she stayed. .

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