The founder of a Russian propaganda center in New York — who helped push an “I Love Russia” campaign — was hit with federal charges Tuesday that she acted as an illegal agent of the Kremlin.
Alleged spy Elena Branson launched the Russia Center New York in Manhattan in 2012, after receiving the authorization from the highest levels of the Russian government, Manhattan prosecutors charged.
They alleged that she even corresponded with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself as part of the effort.
The center served as a Kremlin propaganda machine aimed at spreading its influence in the US, prosecutors said.
Branson’s work with the center, which was financed in part by the Russian government, included hosting an annual “youth forum,” which was “designed to consolidate the Russian-speaking youth community in the United States,” prosecutors allege.
A dual citizen of Russia and the US, Branson, 61, also served as the chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the USA, an organization that targeted kids in the US and sought to promote Russian history and culture.
The council coordinated an “I Love Russia” campaign in the US among other activities, according to prosecutors.
The alleged agent, prosecutors said, helped arrange meetings between Russian and US government officials – including a former New York State Senator, prosecutors said.
The planned December 2015 meeting between the former state politician and the head of the Department of Foreign Economic Activity and International Relations for the Government of Moscow came about after the Russian minister reached out to Branson seeking her help organizing a “friendly hockey match” between the NYPD and the Moscow Interior Ministry teams.
The ex-state Senator reached out to the former NYPD commissioner about the requested hockey game, but it was unclear if he ever actually spoke to him, according to an Oct. 26 email from Branson to the Russian minister.
In another email to the Russian official dated Nov. 9, 2015, Branson said that she had just “talked with the senator about the opportunity to go to NY City Hall” and was awaiting an answer, according to the complaint.
Branson sent another email on Dec. 1, 2015 outlining an agenda for the Russian minister’s upcoming trip to The Big Apple, prosecutors said.
The plans included a meeting with the former state lawmaker and a dinner with an “influential American” who was pals with “the NYC Commissioner,” the court docs said.
Branson also tried to broker a meeting in New York City between the Russian minister and former President Donald Trump or one of his children, according to emails cited in the complaint.
The alleged spy authored a draft invite addressed to Trump, inviting him to a Russia Forum New York in April 2016, according to the court docs.
It’s unclear if the invite was ever sent out, and prosecutors wrote “there is no indication that the now-former President or his children attended the referenced meeting.”
In 2019, Branson also coordinated a campaign to lobby Hawaiian officials against changing the name of a fort on the island of Kauai, according to the complaint against her. The fort was the last surviving formerly Russian outpost in Hawaii and was significant to the Russian government, prosecutors charge.
Branson flew to Russia in 2020 after she was interviewed by the FBI that September.
During the interview, prosecutors said Branson denied ever arranging meetings between Russian officials and US politicians and business leaders, according to prosecutors.
Once back in her homeland, Branson described how the FBI raided her US apartment in an October TV interview with Russian agent Maria Butina.
“The agents asked me to go out and searched the apartment for several hours. They didn’t tell me what they were looking for,” she told Butina, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Branson told Butina that the feds seized documents, computers, iPhones and other electronics, the publication reported.
Butina, who served 15 months behind bars in the US for breaching conservative circles to influence Republican politics, was deported to Russia in October 2019 and had been working as a host for Russia’s state-owned television network.
Branson remains at large and has been charged with six counts, including failure to register as a foreign government agent.
The allegations against her come amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Damian Williams, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York said in a statement he was proud his office charged Branson.
“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,” Williams said.
“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,” he added.