The Russian independent media revealed how Russian emigrants in the United States are being used to promote the Kremlin’s agenda, particularly after the annexation of Crimea and in the context of the war in Ukraine. Independent journalists also noticed that official webpages of Russian authorities did not publish the map of territories annexed in this war, as well as the fact that information on budget spending is now unavailable, preventing the media from estimating war casualties.
THE INSIDER: Compatriotism. How Russian diaspora serves Kremlin in the USA
Throughout Putin's rule, interaction with Russian diasporas abroad has been an important part of the Kremlin's foreign policy strategy. Emigrants have been actively used to advance Kremlin propaganda and sometimes to serve the needs of Russian intelligence. In the U.S., where diaspora organizations were extremely active, they were eventually dealt with by the FBI - the head of the Council of Compatriots was accused of violating the Foreign Agents Act, causing the organization to effectively dissolve itself. The invasion of Ukraine has further divided the compatriot movement: some of its members have decided to withdraw from the public sphere for a while, others continue to openly support the Kremlin, while others still have “readjusted” so as not to harm their political careers.
Elena Branson (Chernykh) is the Russian patriot who became the subject of an FBI investigation. A Russian and American citizen, in 2012 she established the “Russian Center of New York”, whose office was “located” in her Manhattan apartment, and from 2018 to 2021 she headed the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriot Organizations (KSORS) in the USA. The organization purported to be informal and independent, but in fact it was fully under the control of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
A month after the FBI’s visit, Branson left for Moscow. Last March, the US authorities brought formal charges against her for violating the law on foreign agents. According to the investigation, for about ten years, Elena Branson “deliberately avoided registering as a foreign agent, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), working on behalf of the Russian government and receiving missions and funding from high-level Russian officials.” She was also charged with participating in a fraudulent scheme to obtain visas for Russian officials and their relatives and making false statements to the FBI, a total of six counts in the indictment.
In her homeland, Branson has not been idle either: today she hosts a program on Radio Sputnik (part of the Russia Today news agency) in which she interviews guests about Russophobia and the “hunt for Russians” abroad. She faces 35 years in prison in the United States based on the totality of charges brought against her.
Several dozen people associated with the Compatriot Coordinating Council were searched and interrogated during the investigation. Last November, the organization announced that it was suspending its work in the United States. Some prominent members left the country after Branson and the rest went into hiding or underground when they found themselves on the radar of the United States intelligence services. Among them are also those who, after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, ostentatiously disassociated themselves from the compatriot movement and even condemned the actions of Moscow. These people are trying to build a political career in the U.S. and can potentially use their position and connections to influence attitudes toward Russia.
Diaspora in the service of the Kremlin
Coordination Councils of Russian Compatriots (KSORS) are umbrella structures that unite local emigrant organizations in their countries of residence: Russian-language media and publishing houses, Russian schools and kindergartens, cultural centers, clubs, etc. They exist in one form or another in a hundred countries around the world, from the former Soviet republics to Mauritius and Ecuador, and are subordinate to the World Coordination Council, which, as stated on its website, provides “interaction of compatriot associations with government agencies of the Russian Federation and its entities”.
The KSORS work closely with Russian embassies and representative offices of the Foreign Ministry's Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation), receiving grants and instructions from them. Since the summer of 2020, Rossotrudnichestvo has been headed by Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson and namesake of the former prime minister. Another institution that patronizes the Russian diasporas abroad is the Russian World Foundation, a joint brainchild of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and Science. The chairman of the foundation's board of trustees is Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Duma deputy and grandson of Stalin's Commissar Molotov, while the board of trustees is chaired by deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak. Last July, Russian World and Rossotrudnichestvo were put on the EU sanctions list.
Formally, the councils of compatriots are supposed to popularize the Russian language, history and culture, consolidate the community and help strengthen diplomatic relations between Russia and the countries of residence. However, since coming to power, Vladimir Putin has seen in the diaspora much more serious potential. Putin knows from his own experience how emigrants can be useful to the “center”: in the 1980s, he was a Soviet foreign intelligence officer residing in Dresden and worked undercover as director of the USSR-GDR House of Friendship.
Speaking at the first congress of compatriots in 2001, Putin stated bluntly that only a strong state can have a truly strong diaspora, and made it clear that emigration must work to strengthen Moscow's influence across the world: “Now, when Russia is regaining both momentum and authority, when the customary post-war world order is breaking down, we should be together all the more. And Russia's national success should become our common success... I think that our compatriots abroad have every opportunity to help their homeland in constructive dialogue with foreign partners”.
In return, compatriots regained lost identity and a sense of belonging to the unified “Russian world,” a concept which, according to Putin, “has for centuries stretched far beyond the geographical borders of Russia and even far beyond the borders of the Russian ethnos.” Over time, concern for Russian-speaking citizens abroad has become one of the regime's main foreign policy narratives - and one of the justifications for its aggression against Ukraine.
While considering the diaspora an instrument of “soft power,” the Russian authorities, however, were in no hurry to openly use it for political purposes. As Igor Baboshkin, head of the Nash Dom (New York) publishing house and former chairman of the US KSORS told The Insider, no explicit political objectives were being set for compatriots before 2014: “We held various festivals, concerts, celebrated holidays, and supported organizations of Russian-speaking immigrants. The embassy paid for the rent, tickets and hotels for conference delegates […]”.
Everything changed after the referendum in Crimea. According to Baboshkin, in April 2014, the Russian Foreign Ministry demanded that the KSORS sign a letter in support of the annexation (The Insider has a copy at its disposal). Sergey Lavrov and his then-deputy Grigory Karasin, who was in charge of relations with compatriots, pressured Baboshkin for a long time, but he refused: “We said we would not play political games, and we refused to sign. Eventually, the letter was signed by Natalia Sabelnik, president of the Congress of Russian Americans (San Francisco) established in the 1970s, and the Foreign Ministry “started to promote her”. In August 2014, she defeated Igor Baboshkin in the rigged election of the Coordinating Council Chair. After that, the organization was joined by people who actually swore allegiance to the Kremlin. Some of them, in Baboshkin's opinion, were obviously recruited by Moscow. People loyal to the Russian authorities also headed compatriot associations in other countries.
After the Crimean events, humanitarian tasks were pushed to the back burner - activists from the diaspora turned into agents of Russian influence and conduits of Kremlin propaganda.
NOVAYA GAZETA. EVROPA: The Finance Ministry has classified operational data on budget expenses
The Ministry of Finance has blocked access to operational data related to budget execution available on the website “The Electronic Budget”. Previously, the data was updated on a daily basis, indirectly making it possible for users to see what the state was spending on war compensations paid to the families of the dead or wounded.
For instance, in July, the Russian state spent 89 billion rubles for this purpose, Novaya Gazeta Europe estimates. On October 31, the amount reached 166.7 billion rubles. This means “funeral cash” was given to 6 to 10.8 thousand families of dead servicemen and up to 18.3 thousand wounded (depending on the dead – wounded ratio of 1:1, 1:2 or 1:3).
In fact, at least 21.6 and as much as 24.4 thousand members of the National Guard and employees of the Interior Ministry were taken out of action. This number does not include volunteers, LDNR military or the lightly wounded.
Even such a restrained estimate clearly exceeds official numbers. In September, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu had announced 5,937 Russian servicemen had died.
Furthermore, data available on the budget.gov.ru website showed what this war cost Russia. By July, a third of the federal budget was earmarked to the Defense Ministry, the National Guard or classified spending, including the purchase of weapons and the activity of special services. Basically, the Russian Government unreservedly increased “military” spending by 2.2 trillion rubles compared to 2021.
AGENTS.MEDIA: The map on the Kremlin’s website does not include the territories annexed in September
Over a month and a half since the annexation of DNR, LNR and the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, these territories are yet to be included on the map published on the Kremlin’s website, Agents.media notes.
Moreover, no other map published on the official webpages of the Government and the Federation Council includes the newly annexed regions.
At present, 85 entities are identified on the map, the same as before September this year.
At the same time, there is no mention of the annexed territories on the lists of regions published next to the maps.
In 2014, when Crimea was annexed, the map on the Kremlin’s website was updated three days after Putin signed the decrees. The map on the Federation Council’s website was also modified.
Since the time the four regions were annexed, the territory under Russia’s de facto control has shrunk. A day after the official ceremony, Russia conceded Liman, and recently Russian troops have retreated from the right bank of the Dnieper, withdrawing from Kherson, the only regional center occupied since February 24. […]