FBI suspects Russian diplomat of spy recruitment through cultural exchange
This file photo shows the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo / Shawn Thew)
The FBI suspects the head of a Russian cultural exchange program in Washington of recruiting young Americans as spies, organizing their trips to Russia. The accused diplomat is perplexed by the claims, lamenting a return of Cold War rhetoric.
Russian diplomat Yury Zaitsev who heads the exchange program in the US capital has been flagged by American authorities as a possible spy recruiter.
A leak about the investigation Zaitsev has been published by several US media outlets, including the internet version of the Washington Post and leftist web media outlet Mother Jones.
The unnamed sources in the FBI told journalists that Zaitsev and his associates have organized expenses-paid visits to Russia for about 130 American citizens, mostly nonprofit workers, business people and political aides.
For certain visitors, the Russian side absorbed transportation and accommodation charges, though the Americans do not have information confirming that Zaitsev personally accompanied any of the visitors on their trips to Russia.
The FBI claims the center’s executive has been preparing files on those visiting Russia and could potentially be paving the way for future recruiting of the participants in the exchange program.
There is no mention of any solid proof in favor of this theory. The only apparently suspicious moment in center’s work is that in certain cases the Russian side covered transportation and accommodation expenses.
The reaction of the Russian diplomats is one of dismay and indignation, causing them to highlight the return of Cold War rhetoric in bilateral relations.
“It's a shame that the Cold War echoes from time to time in Russian-American relations,” Zaitsev said, exclusively to ITAR-TASS. “Someone must be itching to drop an iron curtain between our countries again,”he said.
The services promoted by the Russian Center for Science and Culture are “absolutely overt” and no less transparent than similar US programs promoted in Russia, Zaitsev stressed.
“Detailed information on our programs and projects can be found on our website,” he said (rs.gov.ru, in Russian).
Why the FBI is conjuring up a new spy scandal now is not exactly clear, however the Russian embassy in the US suspects that it partly serves to intimidate those interested in Russian culture and portray anyone visiting Russia as potential spy.
“There is a clear attempt to distort and tarnish the activities of the Russian cultural center, which works to develop trust and cooperation between our peoples and countries,” maintained the press secretary of the Russian embassy in Washington, Evgeny Khorishko, who also compared such “spook stories” with the times of Cold War attitudes.
Khorishko believes that the scandal is needed “to torpedo the arrangement of the American and Russian presidents” which stressed in a joint statement at the summer G8 summit in Northern Ireland that expansion of direct communications between American and Russia will strengthen mutual understanding and trust, thus bringing Russian-American relations to a whole new level.
“The Russian cultural exchange program has been working to broaden contacts between Russian and American citizens – and will continue to do this work,” Khorishko told ITAR-TASS.
In the meantime, FBI agents interrogate exchange program participants, asking them to describe their activities in Russia. Participants of the exchange programs confirmed to Mother Jones they have received official notifications from the FBI in regard of Zaitsev and his activities.
Zaitsev himself has called the ongoing investigation “a kind of witch-hunt.” He maintains the FBI is“chasing the boys and girls” who visited Russia, demanding they reveal what they were doing during the visit.
“There is a process underway to create fear of Russia in the American society... I believe this is simply unacceptable,” he said.
FBI spokesman Jason Pack declined to comment on the issue. But an unknown special services representative has hinted that the US authorities might ask Yury Zaitsev to leave the country, ITAR-TASS reports.
Russia’s Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation), which deals with cultural exchanges globally, was created in 2008 and is currently headed by politician and diplomat Konstantin Kosachev. The body is represented in 77 countries in 59 special centers of Russian culture and science and within 18 national diplomatic missions.