Amidst existing ties between the Carmel Institue and Russian intelligence, another Russian agent tied to AU has been exposed. The new allegations bring increasing suspicion to the relationship between AU and the Russian government.
Susan Carmel, the main financial supporter of the Carmel Institute at American University, has close ties to yet another alleged Russian agent, Elena Branson. Branson was charged on March 8 with “acting illegally as a Russian agent in the United States,” and her organization, the Russian Center New York (RCNY), hosted a forum in 2016, which included Susan Carmel as a speaker and AU Professor Anton Fedyashin as a moderator. Carmel, as established, funds a Russian history and culture program at AU called the Carmel Institute. Carmel also has incredibly close ties to Vladimir Putin, who personally presented her with the Order of Friendship. Professor Anton Fedyashin, the other AU-affiliated participant at the forum, serves as the Carmel Institute’s head and is also associated with actors in Russian intelligence. Fedyashin’s father and grandfather were KGB operatives, and Fedyashin was associated with Maria Butina during her time at AU. In case there remained any doubt about the intentions of the Institute, Professor Fedyashin was quoted saying, “What we are trying to do with the program is to expose American students to Russia as a cultural superpower.” This is an explicit statement regarding the intent of the Institute, and it clarifies the intense focus and lack of openness to alternative perspectives it seems to have. However, the real issue is not simply that Fedyashin and Carmel participated in Branson’s panel, although it is troubling and worth nothing. The true problem lies with Branson’s other connection to Susan Carmel, through a councilwoman from Hawaii.
When Councilwoman Felicia Cowden of Kauai took a fully funded trip to Russia for a conference, she was fined $500 by the Kauai Ethics Board for abusing her power, and it appeared to be an isolated incident. But when Susan Carmel was allegedly the one who covered those travel costs—and at the request of Elena Branson—it became a more complicated issue than simply a free trip for an elected official. Branson and Cowden became connected through a project Branson was leading, the goal of which was to keep the name “Russian Fort Elizabeth '' for a fort in Hawaii rather than allowing it be changed to the Hawaiian name, Pa'ula'ula, which was advocated for by the locals. At some point during their relationship, Branson pitched the idea of a trip to Russia for a conference to Councilwoman Cowden, who took her up on it. Branson is alleged to have told Russian leaders that she was bringing five residents of Hawaii to Volgada, Russia to operate as delegates at a “Russian-American peace conference” during the summer of 2019. The goal was to “promote friendliness,” and funding was required to cover their food, lodging, and other expenses. The source of that funding was made clear when the Councilwoman later released a statement saying, in part, "I can’t possibly know the accuracy of the allegations against Elena Branson. She was transparent with her receipts and American funding sources, including a photocopy of the check from American University’s Carmel Institute, for travel costs of the trip.” The truly fascinating part of the statement isn’t actually the content, but rather the phrasing, specifically when it states “American University’s Carmel Institute” as the source of the funding. This wording leaves some ambiguity regarding AU’s involvement in the funding, which could be concerning if the funds were somehow tied to AU and not just Susan Carmel. While Susan Carmel is a private citizen and more than welcome to fund any project of her choosing, as conflicting as it may be with her interests at AU, if she is somehow utilizing AU or AU-Institute funds to support an alleged Russian operative she has crossed the line into clearly unethical territory.
With respect to the finances of the Councilwoman Cowden’s trip, in front of the Kauai Ethics Court, Branson said that she was “so glad that some people were able to come, and Felicia, could come as a private citizen.” She added that she “found (a) sponsor, who is Susan Carmel,” who is understood to be heavily tied to Russian intelligence, and that “she gave me some money, and it was all very short notice.” In the minds of most, it would be difficult not to find “short notice” funds provided by a woman with that many connections to Russian intelligence suspicious. Despite this addition to Susan Carmel’s already long list of connections to Russian intelligence, she remains in good standing with the University, who has yet to comment on the situation. Regardless, this chain of events ties yet another alleged Russian operative to American University and the Carmel Institute, which should raise genuine concerns among the student body and greater AU community.
Siena Cooney is a first year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a Staff Writer at the American Agora.
Image courtesy Aaron Siirila, Creative Commons.