Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:
A frame grab from a Zoom interview Natalia Burlinova conducted with The Globe and Mail on April 20, 2023.

A frame grab from a Zoom interview Natalia Burlinova conducted with The Globe and Mail on April 20.The Globe and Mail

The woman accused this week by the U.S. government of operating as an illegal agent of Russian influence says she is a victim of polarizing times.

“In this atmosphere of spy-phobia and Russo-phobia – it’s very difficult,” Natalia Burlinova, 39, told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

The U.S. government issued an arrest warrant for Ms. Burlinova this week but she continues to be at liberty in Moscow, where she has run a think tank called Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy since 2010.

In the interview, she described herself as a policy gadfly and academic untethered to the Russian state. Yet the criminal charges announced in Washington this week portray her as an arm’s-length adjunct of Moscow’s intelligence apparatus. The charges allege that she hid her ties to a Russian spy agency even as she openly organized travel junkets and conferences in Russia to attract visitors who were young policy professionals from Canada, the United States and Europe.

“Burlinova allegedly conspired with an officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to recruit United States citizens to travel to Moscow to participate in a program called Meeting Russia,” reads the wanted notice poster.

Speaking via Zoom, Ms. Burlinova said her organization is legitimate and that seeing her image reproduced on a U.S. wanted poster made her cry. In Moscow, she is raising two children, aged 3 and 6, and has no plans to visit any country with a U.S. extradition treaty. “I need to take care of my small children every day,” she said. “I just cannot leave them and risk going to the United States.”

Natalia Burlinova has been accused by the U.S. government of operating as an illegal agent of Russian influence. Speaking to The Globe from Moscow via Zoom, she denies acting as a recruiter for Russian intelligence.

The Globe and Mail

In July, she was placed on a U.S. sanctions list, but she says that no U.S. government official has ever spoken to her about any criminal allegations. She says she wishes that had happened so she could have defused the situation. “Come on guys – you know I’m in Moscow. I’m a doctor of political science,” she said.“ ... You just post this poster to say that I’m a criminal they should arrest?”

The Globe pressed Ms. Burlinova to address to the core allegations against her but she said she could not. In an affidavit filed in Washington, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges she has had repeated and close contacts with the FSB officer since at least 2015.

“Okay I will be honest: I have consulted with the lawyers at least here in Russia and they told me not to speak about these details,” Ms. Burlinova said.

The United States, which claims to have directly accessed the electronic communications of that FSB officer, alleges that he planned to advance Ms. Burlinova 150,000 rubles for her 2018 travels to the United States where she met influential researchers. The allegations also say Ms. Burlinova briefed the FSB about the Americans she met abroad and at her organization’s annual Meeting Russia conference.

“Don’t ask me to comment on that now,” she said in the interview with The Globe. She said she did contact Russian government officials to sort out issues such as visitor visas.

Ms. Burlinova said that she never crossed the Canadian border during her 2018 trip the United States – or at any point before. “Canada was never the focus of my intention.”

At least four Canadians did attend the Meeting Russia event. Their names are posted on Creative Diplomacy’s website, as are the names of dozens of young professionals from America and Europe who also attended.

Ms. Burlinova said she is taking down some information. She is concerned her new notoriety will now rub off on others, wrongly. “I really feel sorry for our participants,” she said, stressing that “I never asked them do something for Russia or the Russia government. Never anything like that.”

The Meeting Russia event was a forum for bridge-building and debate, she said, adding that it exposed up-and-coming professionals from the West to key officials and figures in Moscow. “During this project they have access to Russian diplomats, to Russian politicians.

In the interview, she recalled how a legend in the world of espionage addressed the first Meeting Russia event in 2017. Andrei Bezrukov and his wife were exposed by the FBI in 2010 as long-term undercover spies and expelled back to Russia.

“He’s a very good expert,” Ms. Burlinova recalled. ”We invited him, it was my decision to invite him. ... I wanted to give them access to people whom they would never get access to.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe