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'Creative Diplomacy' And The FSB: Was A Russian NGO Bridging Divides Or Spying On Unwitting Participants?

Natalia Burlinova joins a panel discussion for the Gorchakov Foundation's NGO Courses on February 10.
Natalia Burlinova joins a panel discussion for the Gorchakov Foundation's NGO Courses on February 10.

In November 2018, at Tufts University's Fletcher School, near Boston, Natalia Burlinova, a Russian foreign policy expert visiting from Moscow, was the featured guest for a discussion on the importance of public diplomacy. The event featured a small group discussion with graduate students, meetings with professors, and a dinner.

Shortly after the event concluded, Burlinova sent photographs and details of her meetings with participants. She later sent more photographs and information, as well as résumés, from similar events that were held around the same time at other U.S. universities: George Washington University, Harvard University's Davis Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to the FBI, the alleged recipient of the photographs and notes on her meetings was Russia's main domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Now residing in Russia, Burlinova was charged this week by the Justice Department with conspiracy to defraud and failure to register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act. The FBI has issued a warrant for her arrest.

An FBI wanted poster released on April 17 targets Burlinova.
An FBI wanted poster released on April 17 targets Burlinova.

According to the U.S. criminal complaint, the meetings with American students and academics were part of "a years-long effort to influence the opinions of future leaders in the United States on behalf of the Russian government."

In addition to the U.S. meetings, Burlinova and her organization, called Creative Diplomacy, or PICREADI, hosted dozens of young journalists, public policy specialists, and newly minted graduate students at annual events in Russia over the course of four years -- a program that "was funded in part by the FSB, a fact never disclosed to the public," according to the FBI. The organization's website prominently features an interview with a Russian couple who were kicked out of the United States in 2010 after the FBI identified them and eight others as "sleeper agents" for Russian intelligence.

"Burlinova provided extensive information to the FSB about the U.S. citizen participants in the Meeting Russia programs, including biographical information, their interests, and their political opinions," the FBI alleged. "The FSB subsequently monitored the career developments of these U.S. citizen participants with an aim that some would become influential public figures."

Nefarious Purposes?

The allegations have stunned some of those who participated in the events in Moscow and the United States, according to interviews with more than a dozen people who attended programs hosted or organized by Burlinova. Others said they weren't surprised by the criminal charges. Still others said they were disappointed that they may have been duped, having believed they were merely engaging in high-minded academic discussions about public diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding.

"There were no discussions at any point of any covert contacts or funding or of any nefarious purposes," said one person who was involved the program for many years and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. If the allegations are true, "this would mean that [Burlinova] acted very irresponsibly toward members of the team, participants, and partners of the program."

Burlinova (front left) moderated a roundtable event on April 10 at Moscow State University.
Burlinova (front left) moderated a roundtable event on April 10 at Moscow State University.

"It was very obvious to me that she had a desire to influence our thoughts on Russia, but I didn't think she was particularly good at that," said Caleb Larson, a Berlin-based reporter who traveled to Moscow in 2018 to participate in one of the Meeting Russia events.

"In retrospect, you end up thinking, 'Oh, so you're some sort of low-level FSB informant trying to play a bigger game, and you're not doing it particularly well,'" he said.

In a series of audio recordings that she provided to RFE/RL, Burlinova said the charges were politically motivated, calling herself a "humble teacher" and saying the allegations echo the case of Maria Butina, a Russian who was arrested in the United States in 2018 and convicted on similar foreign agent charges.

"It's just an attempt to create a Butina Part II," she said. "That is, the case of Maria Butina Part II."

Creative Diplomacy

The case against Burlinova is one of several that U.S. law enforcement has pursued in recent years, highlighting what U.S. authorities argue are Russian "malign influence" efforts in the United States and elsewhere.

One of the best known cases is that of Butina, a gun-rights activist who sought to infiltrate Republican Party political circles and who worked closely with a powerful Kremlin-connected political figure. She was deported in 2019 after serving a prison sentence on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent.

Other cases include Elena Branson, a Russian-American woman who headed an NGO that ostensibly advocated on behalf of Russian expatriates. She fled the United States in October 2020 a month after FBI agents raided her Manhattan apartment and now lives in Russia.

Burlinova on April 10
Burlinova on April 10

Burlinova's case "hearkens back what was going on pre-Trump election in 2016, when you had the Russians trying to get into Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts and other social media…to try and attract Americans," said Steven Hall, who served as the CIA's station chief in Moscow in the 1990s. "This seems to be an advanced variation of that."

Founded in 2010, PICREADI says it was formed to engage in Russian public diplomacy, a concept that basically describes government efforts to influence public opinion as part of conducting foreign policy.

For years, according to the U.S. documents, Burlinova communicated with an unnamed FSB officer to coordinate her travels and event planning. In 2015, for example, the FSB officer gave Burlinova a list of people associated with U.S. universities and foreign policy institutes and instructed her to research them, the FBI said.

'We're Angry Now'

Details in the FBI affidavit suggest agents had extensive, detailed access to Burlinova's cell phone or e-mail accounts or computer files, including her correspondence with an unnamed FSB officer with whom she consulted frequently and to whom she sent photographs, résumés, and other information.

"If she didn't delete the e-mails, texts, or pictures on her phone, then it's all fair game," said Darren Mott, a retired FBI special agent who specialized in cyber- and counterintelligence threats.

"If she wasn't officially trained by the FSB to be an asset, then she was probably lazy in her operational security," he said -- for example, storing files on her phone that could then be easily accessed.

In November 2018, Burlinova and a colleague traveled to the United States for events and meetings at several universities, including Tufts' Fletcher School, Harvard's Davis Center, George Washington University, and MIT. The FSB gave Burlinova 150,000 rubles ($2,300) for the trip, the FBI complaint said.

According to people with knowledge of the events, Burlinova espoused Russian government positions in her discussions and supported President Vladimir Putin but didn't come across as a Kremlin shill or voice unwavering support for Kremlin policies.

On November 15, "Burlinova sent to the FSB Officer several photographs of her meetings with U.S. citizens at the U.S. universities, and updated him on her various meetings in the United States," the complaint said. It said she sent the officer more information later in November, after returning to Russia.

"We were fairly clear-eyed when we decided to invite her," said one person with knowledge of the events, also speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. But "we never suspected she was some sort of spy."

"We're angry about the situation now," the person said.

The FBI later met twice with officials at Tufts, most recently in March 2022, asking questions about Burlinova and her organization.

The Fletcher School declined to comment on questions about Burlinova's events there. MIT and Harvard's Davis Center did not respond to e-mails seeking comment. George Washington University declined to comment; a person with knowledge of the events said that Burlinova had met informally with two professors and never gave any presentations to students or faculty there.

Meeting Russia

Between 2017 and 2021, Burlinova organized a series of annual events in Moscow called Meeting Russia. The events were billed as a way for young professionals -- foreign policy experts, graduate students, journalists -- to "facilitate productive dialogue among the new generation of leaders and draw attention to the critical points in Russia's relations with the United States and the European Union."

The program paid for participants' food, lodging, and transportation within Russia. Some participants said their airfare was paid for, while others said they paid their own way.

In interviews with RFE/RL, participants said it was clear there was a pointed effort to present a pro-Russian, pro-government point of view. Some, particularly journalists who participated, said they saw no problem with that and that it was useful to hear directly from Russian lawmakers and others.

Burlinova's "own designs, her own point of view, were totally Kremlin-friendly, but it was a transparent thing. It wasn't being hidden. She was clear about where her positions stood," said Reid Standish, who attended the event in 2018 as a freelance journalist. Standish is now a reporter with RFE/RL who focuses on China.

"I went into it with very clear eyes. I was curious to check it out," Standish said.

Another attendee agreed that Burlinova was up-front about her pro-government views. Still, he was surprised to hear about the arrest warrant and the criminal charges.

"What was weird to me about the entire thing is what [was] couched in this public diplomacy language. PICREADI was billed as this public diplomacy organization. But I had the sense that they didn't know what that was," said the person, who asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize a job search or security clearance.

"What [the event] was at its core was a just series of meetings. [It] didn't seem like it was intended to quote-unquote recruit anyone," the person said.

The FBI also questioned several attendees about the events, according to the criminal complaint. Several participants confirmed to RFE/RL they had been questioned about Burlinova and her organization.

"The FSB link. I knew others that I have talked to on the program. We all assumed there would be spying, but the question was, 'Is the program being spied on, or is the program spying on us?'" said Bennett Murray, a journalist who attended the program in Moscow in 2019 and is now a freelance journalist living in Serbia.

"I'm not too shocked about the whole spying stuff," he said.

One European attendee said it was completely not a surprise Burlinova had allegedly been working with the FSB and said she had exchanged messages with other participants after news broke of the arrest warrant.

"We were always right, what we thought about this organization," said the person, who also asked to speak anonymously due to her work with a European government agency. "I was messaging with two other friends. We were like, 'This is insane, but also I'm not really surprised.'"

The person said it was upsetting to know Burlinova had allegedly been passing personal information to the FSB, but: "If you really thought that you could go to Russia in 2018 and thought something like that could not happen to you, you're really super naive."

"We were aware of the risks, data being monitored. We would joke that there were like dodgy cars following us," another European attendee said. "It seems like everyone was there in good faith, establishing a dialogue. We didn't think she was actively involved in passing information."

Burlinova spoke openly about how the organization had received government funding -- a grant from the government's Presidential Fund, which gives money to many Russian organizations, participants said.

"I was thinking about the allegation that the program was funded by the FSB," another participant said. "It's so disheartening. We all knew she would get funding from the Russian [Foreign Ministry], and I remember her justifying it because of the foreign agent law, the difficult environment for NGOs, the lack of alternatives."

"We believed her. I guess we were trusting her good faith," the person said.

'Absolutely Groundless'

In her audio responses to RFE/RL, Burlinova contended the charges that she was a foreign agent of the Russian government operating in the United States were "groundless."

"The accusations of the American government that I was engaged in some kind of recruiting activity or was illegal activity…as a foreign agent there -- I think they are absolutely groundless," she said. "I didn't represent the Russian government or the state. I had a purely personal mission to present the Russian program, which is a public diplomacy program, and what we promoted within the framework of this program is Russian narratives."

The Meeting Russia events ended after 2021 for unclear reasons. But Burlinova set up an alumni group for people who participated, including a Facebook page where she and others regularly debated, and sometimes argued, about current events. In some cases, a person using a PICREADI log-on would post pointed, critical comments to participants' own social media accounts -- on Instagram, for example.

After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, discussions involving many of the participants in the Meeting Russia events turned more negative toward Burlinova, PICREADI, and Russian foreign policy altogether. Burlinova posted commentary echoing unfounded Russian claims that Russia was forced to invade Ukraine and that Ukraine was home to bio-weapons laboratories funded by the United States.

In July 2022, Burlinova and her organization were hit with financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department, which said that PICREADI and other "Kremlin proxy organizations...lure in foreign actors and fund local partners and manipulate open societies to promote the Kremlin's views, stir divisions, and distract international communities from pressing issues."

"Despite trying to hide its relationship with the Russian government and its intelligence services, Russia's intelligence services direct and fund Burlinova and PICREADI," the department said in a statement.

ON SOCIAL: Burlinova shared a photo on Telegram of herself alongside Maria Butina on April 21, thanking the convicted Russian foreign agent for her "interest" in the "situation."

Burlinova "sees herself as a public diplomat person," Murray said. "At the same time, she probably realizes now that all of her work cultivating people in the West has been wrecked" by the Ukraine invasion.

PICREADI's website has a mix of blog posts, videos, journal articles, and promotional materials. It also includes interviews with Russian public figures.

Two of those interviews -- one published in 2018 and one in 2020 -- are interviews with a husband and wife who were among the 10 Russians arrested by the FBI in 2010 and accused of being "sleeper agents" posing as average U.S. citizens in the United States.

"If [Russia] can manage to preserve peace, it will be a country that is much more open to the world and much more active, especially from the people's point of view," Andrei Bezrukov, who was living under the name Donald Heatherfield when he was arrested, was quoted as saying. "It also has the potential to become a serious exporter, especially [an] exporter of technology.

"But, if there is war, and I hope not, then all forecasts are off," he said.

On April 21, Burlinova posted a photograph to her Telegram channel, showing her standing alongside Butina in an undisclosed location.

"So, two 'foreign agents' have met up, the main weapon of Russian intelligence in the United States," she wrote. "Thank you, Maria, for your interest in my situation."

Todd Prince contributed to this report
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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