Spies among us? Feds charge New York woman with dual citizenship for acting as a foreign agent

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A woman with dual citizenship in Russia and the U.S. has been hit with federal charges including her failure to register as a foreign agent.

Elena Branson – born Elena Chernykh – 61, allegedly opened a “Russian propaganda center” in New York City and has maintained regular and direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin since at least 2011. The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that her charges include acting as an agent of a foreign government while failing to notify the Attorney General, failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, conspiring to commit visa fraud and lying to the FBI.

Branson was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the U.S. at age 30 in 1991. She became a U.S. citizen in 1999, according to court documents. Working as a merchant banker in Manhattan, she operated the Russian Center of New York with approval – and tens of thousands of dollars – from “the highest levels of the Russian government,” prosecutors say.

Under the guise of promoting Russian culture and heritage, the organization would host numerous events annually including a youth forum that were used as justification by Russian associates when requesting fraudulent visas to enter the U.S., the Daily Mail reported.

Branson was also the chairperson of the Russian Community Council of the USA. The organization was allegedly funded by Russian government entities and coordinated an “I Love Russia” campaign aimed at American youth.

She fled the U.S. in 2020 and remains at large.

During an interview with the state-controlled RT in October, Branson revealed she flew the coop because she felt “scared” and thought the “probability was very high” that she would be arrested in America. The interview was conducted by Maria Butina, who was herself convicted of working as a foreign agent in the U.S. in 2018.

The DOJ announcement came just hours after President Biden’s briefing in which he announced the U.S. would stop importing energy from Russia.

“Elena Branson… actively subverted foreign agent registration laws in the United States in order to promote Russian policies and ideology,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “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.”

The website for the Russian Center New York claims its mission is “to celebrate and share Russian cultural heritage for the enrichment of our community, improve relations between the American and the Russian people, protect the rights of Russian Americans and encourage their participation in public and cultural affairs of the U.S.”

Whether that is true or not, the DOJ claims the center was used as a front for obtaining fraudulent travel visas for Russian officials and their associates.

“In or about October 2018, Branson provided information to an individual about an event in the United States that Branson was coordinating through the Russian Center New York so this individual could use the event as a false pretense to obtain a visa to enter the United States when, in fact, Branson knew the individual had no intention to attend the event,” according to court documents.

During those years, Branson held down two day jobs as a financial strategist at Beryl Consulting Group and an advisor at Manhattan Venture Partners.

“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,” Williams said, and added, “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.”

Authorities say Branson received regular funding and direction from Moscow as well as from the Russian embassy in Washington. The FBI interviewed her on September 29, 2020 and they say she falsely claimed to have never been asked by Russian officials to coordinate any meetings between U.S. business leaders or politicians and officials from the Kremlin. As a result, the bureau used search warrants to access eight of Branson’s electronic accounts and 34 electronic devices, including 11 cellular phones.

Shortly thereafter, Branson flew to Moscow and sold her New York residence in March of 2021.


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