Federal prosecutors have officially charged a dual United States – Russian citizen with illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government in America this week. The criminal complaint was unsealed in a New York federal court.
According to the United States Justice Department, Elena Branson worked as an illegal Russian agent and spread Russian interests for almost a decade. Branson is also known as Elena Chernykh and her crimes included lobbying U.S. Government officials to work in favor of Russian policy positions.
The court filing said, “Throughout, Branson has received funding and direction from the Russian Government, including from the Russian Embassy in the United States, and received tasking from high-level Russian Government officials and Russian Government-run organizations.”
The court documents indicate that this agent attempted to connect with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. She wanted him, or one of his adult children, to attend an event called Russia Forum New York. There is no indication that anyone in Trump’s family attends the event.
Branson, who is 61-years-old, also emailed an invitation to then-president-elect Trump to attend the 2016 World Chess Championship which was located at New York’s South Street Seaport. According to an FBI report, that event was attended by Dmitry Peskov who is now President Putin’s press secretary. Again, there is no indication that Trump attended the championship.
Elena Chernykh was born in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States in 1991 when she was 30 years old. She became a citizen of the United States in 1999. She began an organization called Russian Center New York using aid from the Russian government. It is alleged that she described the goals of the Center to a high-level member of a Moscow-based think tank. The goals were “to fight against anti-Russian sentiment in the United States.”
She was known to have engaged with both New York state senators and New York City officials, according to the court filing. It also includes multiple conversations with Russian government officials that included diplomats in the United States.
Branson participated in a plan to submit to the U.S. Department of State information that supported the visa applications of Russian officials. She allegedly knew that these applications had false statements in them.
Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that Branson had correspondence with Putin and also met with high-ranking Russian ministers.
The FBI interviewed Branson in September of 2020. They searched her residence and found 34 electronic devices and 11 cell phones. She returned to Moscow a month later and has not returned to America. She remains at large.
In October, Branson did an interview on Russian television with Maria Butina. Butina was convicted in 2018 of acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. She had cozied up to the National Rifle Association and took part in outreach to the Trump campaign. She was deported after serving a prison sentence and elected to the Duma, or Russian Assembly, last year.
Branson told Butina that she left the United States because the “probability was very high” that she would be arrested.
CNN tried to contact Branson for a comment on the recent changes. This case comes amid significantly high tensions exist between the western world and Russia due to Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Judging from the ease with which she worked for so long, it’s hard to imagine how many more might be like her in America today.