A Russia-based outreach organization that has cultivated relationships with rising American, European and Canadian policy professionals and academics has secretly received financing and direction from Moscow’s spy service, U.S. prosecutors allege.
In court documents filed in Washington, U.S. authorities say that an organization known as Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy, or PICREADI, was being used by Russian intelligence to glean information about influential foreigners.
The organization was created in Moscow in 2010 with government grants and the stated aim of advancing policy research and building bridges with the West. This week, American authorities announced criminal charges against the organization’s 39-year-old founder, Natalia Burlinova, as they accused her of working since 2015 with an unnamed Russian intelligence officer who wanted information on influential foreign nationals who were being encouraged to visit Moscow and meet government officials.
Documents filed in a U.S. court say the Russian intelligence officer was briefed about attendees who had many of their travel costs covered as they attended the PICREADI organization’s annual Meeting Russia conference in Moscow.
Singled out for attention were the people “who, in Burlinova’s view, had positive attitudes toward Russia,” court documents say.
Ms. Burlinova stands accused of funnelling documents to Russian intelligence about her visitors – including résumés, passport information, photographs and analyses of their views. A U.S. warrant for her arrest was issued on Monday. “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.
Russia watchers say that this case highlights the renewed threat of influence operations targeting people in the West. “After the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union they put a bit of a pause on those sorts of activities, but I’ve noticed a ramping up,” said Marcus Kolga, a Russia watcher and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Often, he said, “people who are going on junkets know exactly what they are getting into.” But Mr. Kolga said that Canada still needs a foreign agents registry and related laws to better protect citizens against a growing tempo of influence operations.
“It’s a huge gap. We need to fill that gap very quickly,” he said. “Because I think that our foreign adversaries – countries like Russia, China, and Iran – recognize this and they are exploiting it.”
Several Canadians appear to have been courted by Ms. Burlinova’s organization, which has an English language website.
The site names four Canadians as having attended Meeting Russia events since 2017 and The Globe contacted one of them on Wednesday.
International-relations scholar Zach Paikin, who is affiliated with several think tanks abroad, has written essays that appear on the PICREADI site.
When he was asked about the U.S. allegations, he said he was stunned to learn of them.
“I participated in the program in 2017 and took part in a small handful of Meeting Russia’s virtual activities,” Mr. Paikin said in an e-mail. He said he regarded the Russia-based creative-diplomacy organization as a legitimate opportunity for networking and to advance policy research.
“I’m obviously shocked and concerned by the allegations against Ms. Burlinova,” he said. “I met her during the Meeting Russia program and encountered her maybe once or twice on the European conference circuit over subsequent years.”
He added that he has not heard from the organization “since the immediate aftermath of Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The Moscow-based organization did not immediately reply to an e-mail from The Globe seeking comment on the U.S. charges.
A video by Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI) shows its founder and president Natalia Burlinova. Burlinova is wanted for allegedly acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government within the U.S.
Ottawa officials would not say on Wednesday whether Canada is conducting any parallel investigations into the Russian organization. “The RCMP is aware of foreign actor interference activity in Canada,” said spokeswoman Robin Percival, who said the Mounties cannot speak to any active investigations.
Alexander Cohen, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, said that the federal Liberal government is working to create a Canadian Foreign Influence Transparency Registry. “Consultations were launched last month and are well under way,” he said.
The U.S. prosecution against Ms. Burlinova relies on a law that was passed decades ago.
The U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act bars foreigners from conducting influence activities in the United States unless they first notify the U.S. government of their aims and intents. This law can give American prosecutors a relatively simple charge to lay in cases that flow from otherwise complex espionage investigations.
The U.S. charges also accuse Ms. Burlinova of feeding the FSB with information about Americans she met during a 2018 tour of U.S. universities and research institutions that was allegedly partly underwritten by funds from Russian intelligence.
“Without ever notifying the Attorney General of her activities as required by law, Burlinova conspired with the FSB Officer in a years-long effort to influence the opinions of future leaders in the United States on behalf of the Russian government,” reads a court-filed affidavit.
This sworn statement by Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Aaron Steketee says that Russian intelligence had a long-term interest in the career progression of foreigners being flagged as friendly. “The FSB subsequently monitored the career developments of these U.S. citizen participants with an aim that some would become influential public figures,” the affidavit says.