Early in the evening of March 8, 2022, the Department of Justice charged Elena Branson (also known as Elena Chernykh) with four counts of conspiracy to act or acting as a foreign agent without registering, one count of conspiracy to commit visa fraud, and one count of making false statements. The indictment reveals a decade-long scheme to elude formal registration while conducting a covert information operation to convey Kremlin-directed messages and media to American audiences, according to the DOJ’s report.
Branson’s indictment, especially, as we’ll show below, when seen alongside the overt media operations by Anissa Naouai, demonstrates precisely why FARA exists and how Russia uses both illegal and legal methods to advance its propaganda machine inside open societies like the United States, as if it was standard media narrative.
Taking Branson’s under-the-radar efforts alongside Naouai’s open, if not upfront, registered media strategy, one can see how the Kremlin seeks to back up its official propaganda outlets with individuals and institutions that echo the same sentiments in a manner that seems organic, or even grassroots.
Upon receiving “approval from the highest levels of the Russian Government,” Branson created the Russian Center New York (RCNY), under the guise of “cooperation and harmony,” to advance and promote Russian culture, Russian interests, and to assist Russian nationals living in the area. RCNY’s website is a little bare, but a search on Internet archives reveals names such as Viktor Vekselberg, who served as Chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation, and the late Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian Studies at New York University and whose writings have appeared in Russia Today (now RT, the Kremlin’s chief mouthpiece on the global stage) as participants in RCNY events and interviews.
Some of these events were public, free, held in Russian, and hosted by the Consulate General of Russia in New York; and they were often geared towards younger audiences. RCNY’s Youth Forum New York 2019, for example, boasted two-hundred young guests.
Branson was also chairperson of another Russian diaspora organization, Russian Community Council of the USA (KSORS), which, according to the indictment, promotes “the consolidation of the Russian community in the United States and public organizations of Russian-speaking citizens of the United States.” KSORS closed its operations late in 2021, citing pressures from an ongoing FBI investigation.
The Daily Beast reported on the investigation back in June 2021 and managed to shed some light on the organization’s internal dynamics by reaching out to members, including the former chairperson Igor Baboshkin. The piece said that “after being re-elected chair unanimously, he was unceremoniously removed from his position after he refused to cosign a statement supporting Russia’s occupation of the Crimea.” Baboshkin argues that following Russia’s invasion into Ukraine in 2014, “the Russian embassy took over” KSORS. It was following his exit that Branson would come to head the organization.
But in late 2020, Branson decided to leave the United States and fly to Moscow, after she was questioned by the authorities and search warrants were carried out. One year later, just before KSORS closed its doors, an interview of Branson conducted by Maria Butina, another convicted Russian spy who spent her time cozying up to Republican and conservative leaders and who now sits in the Russian Duma, was aired on RT. In the interview she said she left for Moscow out of fear of arrest.
RT forms the spearhead of the Kremlin’s overseas propaganda machine. According to a 2016 study from the RAND Corporation, RT claimed, at the time, page views that would make it “the most-watched news source on the Internet.” But RT is just one of a number of media outlets that are either directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin.
RT is owned by TV-Novosti, along with a slew of other popular Western social media outlets such as Redfish, Maffick, and Ruptly. Many of these outlets avoid openly stating their Russian ties, but not only were the previously named outlets tied to a shared address in Berlin, their shareholder structure reveals deep financial connections between them.
Anissa Naouai filed with FARA in December 2021 for her work with TV-Novosti’s media efforts in the United States. Naouai’s firm, Maffick LLC, is the US subsidiary of its German-based parent company, and was paid, according to the filing, over $2 million to produce three online video programs in the United States: Waste-ED, InTheNow, and SoapBox. These shows, the oldest of which began airing seven years ago on YouTube, seem designed to resemble contemporary video news produced by American media outlets such as Vice, Vox, and Huffington Post and covered a range of topics meant, mostly, to appeal to young left-leaning consumers.
The strategy of appealing to the youth parallels the work done by, now-indicted, Elena Branson. Naouai contends that she is an independent creator, and subsequently “cut all ties” with RT following Russia’s massive escalation of its war on Ukraine in late February 2022, but that is little consolation for the years previously spent parroting Putin’s talking-points.
Russia’s strategy of targeting young Americans through overt and covert operations raises serious alarm bells for policymakers as it regards the other great adversary, China.
This post was edited on 5/27/2022 for technical reasons.