Russia is denying fresh allegations that its government-run cultural exchange program in Washington is recruiting unsuspecting young Americans as intelligence assets.
On Wednesday, the magazine Mother Jones reported that the FBI is investigating whether Yury Zaytsev, head of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in D.C., used a spate of all-expense trips to Russia to cultivate promising young Americans as intelligence resources. A U.S. intelligence official confirmed to the Associated Press the existence of the investigation.
The Russian Embassy in Washington dismissed the accusations as scare tactics that "very much resembles Cold War era," in a statement to The Cable.
"Russian Cultural Center has been working to expand contacts and better understanding between Russian and American citizens and will continue this work," said embassy press secretary Yevgeniy Khorishko. "A blunt tentative is made to distort and to blacken activities of the Russian Cultural Center in DC, which are aimed at developing mutual trust and cooperation between our peoples and countries."
Since 2001, Zaytsev’s cultural center has bankrolled trips for about 130 Americans ranging from business executives to political aides to nonprofit advocates, according to Mother Jones. American participants of the trips said the center spared no expense, putting them in a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg that frequently plays host to jet-setting delegations for G-8 and G-20 summits: "The organization paid for meals, travel, lodging, and every other expense associated with the trip, down to the visa fee," the Mother Jones article states.
These latest allegations offer a new bullet hole in the unusually public tit-for-tat spy wars between the United States and Russia.
In May, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) declared American official Ryan Fogle "persona non grata" after accusing him of trying to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA. Fogle was allegedly detained while wearing a blond wig and holding a compass, three pairs of glasses, and a contract offering $100,000 for spy services.
Days before, former Justice Department official Thomas Firestone was thrown out of the country, allegedly after resisting an FSB recruiter.
The rare expulsions followed an even rarer accusation by the Russians about the identity of the CIA station chief in Moscow — a low blow in the arena of international espionage. The flap came amid back-and-forth allegations between the FBI and FSB that the other agency dropped the ball over the Boston Marathon bombing, which was allegedly masterminded by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was followed during a visit to Russia in 2012 and included on a U.S. list of potential terrorists.
The U.S. intelligence community was further rocked by the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted political asylum in Russia after leaking to the press a range of sensitive documents on U.S. surveillance.
But if you ask the Russian Embassy, the latest row is all just one big attempt to undermine attempts to strengthen relations between the American and Russian peoples. "As a matter of fact, somebody intends to torpedo the guidelines of the Russian and U.S. Presidents, whose Joint Statement in Lough Erne emphasizes the importance of ‘expanding direct contracts between Americans and Russians that will serve to strengthen mutual understanding and trust and make it possible to raise U.S.-Russian relations to a qualitatively new level,’" said Khorishko.
In a statement to the Kremlin-funded RT, Russia’s foreign minister said "We believe that these media publications and the actions of the US authorities are unfriendly and are aimed at aggravating the situation in the area of international humanitarian cooperation."
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.