Thursday 10 March 2022

Dual citizen charged with illegally acting as a Russian spy in US, allegedly had contact with Putin himself

 Federal prosecutors have charged a dual citizen of the United States and Russia for illegally acting as a Russian agent in the U.S., according to a Department of Justice news release issued Tuesday.

Elena Branson, also known as "Elena Chernykh," spent nearly a decade in the U.S. working "to spread Russia interests, including through the lobbying of U.S. Government officials in favor of Russian policy positions," prosecutors noted in a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court in New York this week.

In the complaint, prosecutors alleged that the 61-year-old willfully failed to register as a foreign agent in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, conspired to commit visa fraud, and made false statements to the FBI during her time in the U.S.

Branson has since fled the country and remains at large.

Beginning in 2011, the alleged spy worked on behalf of the Russian government by coordinating meetings for Russian officials to lobby U.S. political officials and businesspersons and by operating organizations in the country to promote Russian governmental policies.

In 2012, she allegedly launched the Russia Center New York in Manhattan — a propaganda machine for the Kremlin — with funding and authorization from "the highest levels of the Russian government." Branson is alleged to have had contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself as part of the effort.

According to prosecutors, Branson’s promotional outreach involving the center included hosting an annual youth forum, which was "designed to consolidate the Russian-speaking youth community in the United States."

While living in the U.S., Branson also served as the chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the USA, under which she coordinated an "I Love Russia" campaign that reportedly "focused on the promotion of Russian history and culture to American youths."

Among other things, Branson attempted to arrange meetings between Russian lobbyists or government officials and U.S. government officials, including New York lawmakers.

In 2016, she is alleged to have twice attempted to get then-President Donald Trump to attend events where Russian lobbyists would presumably engage him or his inner circle. But in both cases, there was no indication that Trump attended the events, the filing said.

"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," assistant attorney general Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement. "The department will continue to expose these serious crimes and shine a light on foreign malign influence."

The FBI interviewed Branson on Sept. 29, 2020, during which she allegedly denied acting on behalf of the Russian government. That same day, agents searched her RCNY office and found 34 electronic devices, including 11 cell phones.

In an Oct. 15 interview on state-controlled RT, Branson recalled leaving the U.S. for Moscow approximately one month after the interview because she was "scared" and thought the "probability was very high" that she would be arrested if she stayed in the country, prosecutors noted.

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