MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Thursday angrily dismissed espionage accusations against a Russian cultural exchange official in Washington, saying the U.S. claims were unfounded.
The FBI is looking into whether Yury Zaytsev, the head of a Russian government-run cultural exchange program, tried to recruit young Americans as intelligence assets, a U.S. intelligence official told The Associated Press on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the probe was still underway.
The magazine Mother Jones first reported the story. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "bewildered" by the reports and said the "fabrications they contained had nothing to do with the reality." It demanded the U.S. government "unequivocally and publicly disavow the ill-intended attempts to cast a shadow on the activities of the Russian Center for Science and Culture."
An FBI spokesman, Jason Pack, declined to comment. 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." Mother Jones said the organization run by Zaytsev has footed the bill for about 130 Americans to visit Russia. His center offers language lessons and cultural programs. The magazine said Zaytsev or his associates had built files on participants, including one who had been an adviser to a U.S. state governor.
The magazine said FBI agents have been interviewing Americans who participated in the program. Zaytsev's case comes amid friction in U.S.-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.
A flurry of spy cases has added to the tension. In May, Russian security services arrested a U.S. diplomat who they say was caught red-handed while trying to court a spy. He left the country a few days later.
In 2010, the FBI busted a ring of sleeper agents for Russia that it had been following for years in the United States. All 10, including the now well-known Anna Chapman, pleaded guilty and were returned in a swap.
Pete Yost in Washington contributed.