The Cable

Russia Denies Running Espionage Trap in Washington

Russia is denying fresh allegations that its government-run cultural exchange program in Washington is recruiting unsuspecting young Americans as intelligence assets.

On Wednesday, the magazine Mother Jones reported that the FBI is investigating whether Yury Zaytsev, head of the Russian Center for Science and Culture in D.C., used a spate of all-expense trips to Russia to cultivate promising young Americans as intelligence resources. A U.S. intelligence official confirmed to the Associated Press the existence of the investigation.

The Russian Embassy in Washington dismissed the accusations as scare tactics that "very much resembles Cold War era," in a statement to The Cable.

"Russian Cultural Center has been working to expand contacts and better understanding between Russian and American citizens and will continue this work," said embassy press secretary Yevgeniy Khorishko. "A blunt tentative is made to distort and to blacken activities of the Russian Cultural Center in DC, which are aimed at developing mutual trust and cooperation between our peoples and countries."

Since 2001, Zaytsev's cultural center has bankrolled trips for about 130 Americans ranging from business executives to political aides to nonprofit advocates, according to Mother Jones. American participants of the trips said the center spared no expense, putting them in a luxury hotel in St. Petersburg that frequently plays host to jet-setting delegations for G-8 and G-20 summits: "The organization paid for meals, travel, lodging, and every other expense associated with the trip, down to the visa fee," the Mother Jones article states.

These latest allegations offer a new bullet hole in the unusually public tit-for-tat spy wars between the United States and Russia.

In May, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) declared American official Ryan Fogle "persona non grata" after accusing him of trying to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA. Fogle was allegedly detained while wearing a blond wig and holding a compass, three pairs of glasses, and a contract offering $100,000 for spy services.

Days before, former Justice Department official Thomas Firestone was thrown out of the country, allegedly after resisting an FSB recruiter.

The rare expulsions followed an even rarer accusation by the Russians about the identity of the CIA station chief in Moscow -- a low blow in the arena of international espionage. The flap came amid back-and-forth allegations between the FBI and FSB that the other agency dropped the ball over the Boston Marathon bombing, which was allegedly masterminded by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was followed during a visit to Russia in 2012 and included on a U.S. list of potential terrorists.

The U.S. intelligence community was further rocked by the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted political asylum in Russia after leaking to the press a range of sensitive documents on U.S. surveillance.

But if you ask the Russian Embassy, the latest row is all just one big attempt to undermine attempts to strengthen relations between the American and Russian peoples. "As a matter of fact, somebody intends to torpedo the guidelines of the Russian and U.S. Presidents, whose Joint Statement in Lough Erne emphasizes the importance of 'expanding direct contracts between Americans and Russians that will serve to strengthen mutual understanding and trust and make it possible to raise U.S.-Russian relations to a qualitatively new level,'" said Khorishko.

In a statement to the Kremlin-funded RT, Russia's foreign minister said "We believe that these media publications and the actions of the US authorities are unfriendly and are aimed at aggravating the situation in the area of international humanitarian cooperation."

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

The Cable

Exclusive: Kerry and Top State Dept Officials Split Over Syria Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry's top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

The Geneva conference has been in the planning stages for months, and Western officials have long expressed hopes that it could help pave the way for a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis.

The Obama administration and its top allies believe that the fighting in Syria is largely at a stalemate, with forces loyal to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad unable to fully vanquish the country’s insurgents and the rebels looking to unseat Assad unable to conquer Damascus or oust him by force. Peace talks, Kerry argues, offer the only realistic chance of ending a civil war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians and forced millions of others from their homes.

There’s just one catch: a growing number of key Syrian opposition leaders say they won’t attend the conference unless Assad promises to transfer power to a transitional government and then step aside. Assad has rejected both of those demands, and Kerry’s critics within the State Department believe that there is a good chance that the main opposition groups will either boycott the conference entirely or send a delegation that has little to no influence over the rebels who are actually fighting Assad’s forces. Some of the officials said the conference should be postponed or canceled to avoid an embarrassing public failure for the U.S.

Top State Department officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have told Kerry that it would be hard to cobble together a broad coalition of Syrians by mid-November, the scheduled start date for the talks, and cautioned that many prominent opposition figures were likely to sit out the negotiations altogether.

“It’s possible we can get a delegation there,” a senior State Department official told The Cable. “It’s not impossible, but it will certainly require some work.”

The divisions within the State Department come at a delicate moment in the long U.S.-led effort to bring Assad and his enemies to the negotiating table. The leadership of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, or SOC, the umbrella group working most closely with the West, will gather in Istanbul on November 1 and 2 to vote on whether to send a delegation to the Geneva talks. The Syrian National Council, the largest bloc in the SOC, has already said it will boycott the negotiations, and the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition has set such stringent preconditions for participation in the talks that it appears his group is prepared to sit out the negotiations as well.

The senior State Department official told The Cable that Washington believed there was still a chance of persuading the Syrian National Council and the larger Syrian Opposition Coalition to to participate in the Geneva talks. It would be difficult for the talks to place without the umbrella group.

“Right now the participation of the SOC in Geneva is not assured, but it is still possible,” the official said.

Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is in Istanbul this week as part of a last-ditch effort to convince the opposition leaders to change their minds and participate in the Geneva talks. Even if he succeeds, however, it’s far from clear that they will be speaking for the rebels fighting on the ground in Syria. Last week, 65 of the rebel militias, including several linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, said they no longer recognized the Syrian National Council and wouldn’t feel bound by any deals it struck.

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough. Kerry will have to decide if he’s willing to gamble that they will say yes.