THIS RUSSIAN GROUP SAID IT WANTED TO FOSTER TIES WITH THE WEST. INSTEAD, U.S. AUTHORITIES SAY, YOUNG CANADIANS AND OTHERS WERE BEING SPIED ON
The U.S. Justice Department alleges Natalia Burlinova hatched the idea to bring ‘young leaders’ from the West for a three-day visit to meet Russian leaders.
By Allan Woods
April 19, 2023
The head of an organization that promotes Russian ties with the West is facing allegations she conspired with and helped Russia’s main security agency spy on young western leaders, including Canadians, as part of an elaborate foreign influence operation.
As Canada investigates suspicions about Chinese attempts to influence policy and perspectives in this country, the Russian case allegedly provides a look at the lengths to which foreign governments will go and the time and money they will invest to sway public opinion in foreign lands.
Natalia Burlinova, a 39-year-old Muscovite, founded a non-governmental organization, PICREADI Creative Diplomacy, in 2010 that aimed to promote Russian voices and viewpoints, or “soft power,” to the world.
In 2015, according to a criminal complaint released this week by the U.S. Justice Department, Burlinova hatched the idea to bring “young leaders” from the West to Russia for a three-day visit in which they would meet senior Russian government officials and other leaders. The program, dubbed “Meeting Russia,” was officially launched in 2017.
Over the years, Burlinova has brought journalists, academics, activists and policymakers to the country. The criminal complaint only makes reference to U.S. citizens invited to participate in the program. It identifies none of the participants by name, as they are not suspected of wrongdoing.
Zachary Paikin, a Canadian researcher and foreign policy expert with the Centre for European Policy Studies, told the Star he was “shocked and concerned” by the allegations against Burlinova, whom he met through the program in 2017 and has run into several times since at conferences in Europe.
Other Canadian participants included Aaron Pinto, who now serves as Ontario’s Trade and Investment representative in New York City; Erik Henningsmoen, a public policy researcher who works for the Calgary branch of the Canadian International Council, a think-tank; and Oliver Roy Pelletier, who was a master’s student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, when he took part in the program in 2019. “I really liked it. I was surprised. In Canada we don’t have so many informations about what’s really happening in Russia so I was really happy to come,” said Pelletier, a francophone who spoke in English, in a video posted to the program’s Facebook page. “I think it’s good for the resumé, of course, but also to really like deconstruct the stereotypes and get down on the facts and be more pragmatic and more tolerant as well.”
But U.S. prosecutors alleged Tuesday that the public diplomacy trips were secretly organized in close collaboration with officials from Russia’s federal security service, known by its Russian acronym, the FSB.
It was also financed in part by the FSB and Burlinova allegedly provided detailed intelligence reports about “who, in Burlinova’s view, had positive attitudes towards Russia and were prepared to continue to collaborate,” according to the criminal complaint. “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,” says the complaint, which charges Burlinova with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and acting as an agent of a foreign government without registering her activities.
These efforts allegedly began in 2015, when the FSB agent provided Burlinova a list of American experts, journalists, activists and policymakers whom she should contact as she searched for participants in the inaugural Meeting Russia program.
Some participants in the 2018 program described it “as pushing a pro-Russian agenda and as being in part designed to identify U.S. participants who might later serve in the U.S. government,” the criminal complaint alleges.
Paikin said the program offered “a better sense of the strategic calculations and political discourses shaping Russia’s foreign policy, which was useful for my scholarly research.”
But he said the Russian officials, analysts and thinkers featured in the program expressed a range of different opinions and were “vigorously challenged” by participants. “Some of the Russians I met during the program have since left Russia and have openly opposed Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Paikin wrote.
In July 2022, Burlinova was sanctioned by the U.S. government for her part in the Meeting Russia trips, with the Treasury Department noting that “Russia’s intelligence services have tracked the activities and career paths of past participants” of the group’s events.
Henningsmoen wrote after being told by the Star of the criminal complaint that he participated in the Meeting Russia program in 2018 and then again in a virtual meeting in 2022 as an “alumni observer.”
He recounted his impressions of that most recent meeting in a January article for the Canada-Russia Research Initiative website, calling it “a modest attempt to expand Western coverage of (the) Meeting Russia program.” “As the war in Ukraine continues and as the West’s relations with Russia continue to degrade as a result, coverage of initiatives such as Meeting Russia become increasingly pertinent,” Henningsmoen wrote.
Contrary to previous years, where participants came mainly from North America and Europe, the 2022 participants came from India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, South Africa and parts of Latin America, he noted.
There was, he said, frank discussion about Russia’s war in Ukraine, including “a widespread acknowledgement amongst experts that Russia’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine was not going well,” although most believed that Russia “would eventually prevail in Eastern Ukraine.”
Henningsmoen concluded his report on the 2022 meeting with a wish that he could end his dispatch by saying something “on a positive note.” “But such words would ring hollow,” he
wrote. “It’s hard to see any space for programs such as Meeting Russia to have any real chance at reshaping Russia’s shattered relations with the West at present time.”
Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan