Russia has angrily dismissed espionage accusations against a Russian cultural exchange official in Washington, saying the US claims were unfounded.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that it was “bewildered” by reports that the head of a Russian government-run cultural exchange programme tried to recruit young Americans as intelligence assets.
The “fabrications they contained had nothing to do with the reality”, the ministry statement said and demanded that the US government “unequivocally and publicly disavow the ill-intended attempts to cast a shadow on the activities of the Russian Center for Science and Culture”.
AP news agency reported on Wednesday quoting a US intelligence official as saying that the FBI was looking into whether Yury Zaytsev, the head of a Russian government-run cultural exchange programme, tried to recruit young Americans as intelligence assets.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe was still under way.
Zaytsev dismissed the accusations as an attempt to hurt ties between Moscow and Washington.
“It’s a shame that echoes of the Cold War are heard in Russian-American relations from time to time,” Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.
Evgeniy Khorishko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, also denied the suspicions, telling Itar-Tass that “such horror stories smack of Cold War times.”
The magazine Mother Jones, which first reported the story, said the organisation run by Zaytsev has footed the bill for about 130 Americans to visit Russia. His centre offers language lessons and cultural programmes. The magazine said Zaytsev or his associates had built files on participants, including one who had been an adviser to a US state governor.
The magazine said FBI agents have been interviewing Americans who participated in the programme.
Zaytsev’s case comes amid friction in US-Russian ties, which have been strained over differences on Syria, Moscow’s decision to give refuge to former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden and the Kremlin’s crackdown on the opposition and rights activists.
Some analysts has doubted US claims, calling it a smart move to shift the world’s attention away from a flurry of spy cases Washington has to contend with following Snowden leaks.