With the FBI investigation into recruiting American students as intelligence assets by a Russian exchange program in Washington, the future of U.S.-Russia educational exchanges appears to be in limbo.

Looking for spies? Photo: AP

After the FBI launched an investigation this week into the activity of Yuri Zaytsev, the U.S.-based director of Russian exchange programs, who allegedly used American students as intelligence assets, some experts claim that the Cold War legacy seems to be haunting the U.S.-Russia relationship once again. Will this incident hamper educational and cultural exchange between the two countries? Experts are divided in their assessments.

This week, FBI officers questioned American participants of the Rossotrudnichestvo exchange program run by Zaytsev, who also heads the Russian Center for Science and Culture in Washington, D.C. The program attracts Americans who plan to visit Russia and covers their expenses.   

According to the Washington Post, FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson declined to comment on whether there was an investigation or to discuss the bureau’s role.

Meanwhile, Zaytsev described the FBI approach as another “witch hunt” that was commonplace during the Cold War.

“It is very disappointing that the Cold War rhetoric echoes in U.S.-Russia relations,” he told the ITAR-TASS news agency. “Somebody seems to be eager to drop the Iron Curtain again.” According to him, the FBI is pestering and questioning “boys and girls” who visited Russia to fuel fears and suspicions toward Russia in American society.

“I think it is unacceptable,” he said.  According to him, all Rossotrudnichestvo programs are absolutely open and transparent, just like their U.S. counterparts in Russia. “All information about our project is available on our websites.”

Meanwhile, some American experts are very doubtful that the FBI investigation will seriously affect U.S.-Russia relations and educational exchange between the two countries.

“I doubt this will cast a long shadow,” said former C.I.A. analyst Paul Goble. “There may be a short term ‘hiccup’ but I don't think it will lead to a serious cutback in exchanges. There is simply too much interest in exchanges in both directions for one problem like this to affect the entire relationship in this sector.”

David Foglesong, professor of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, agrees.

"I doubt that this incident will affect U.S.-Russian relations very severely," he said. "The two governments have much more important issues to address." 

In contrast, some Russian experts argue that the FBI probe into Zaytsev’s activity may seriously hamper U.S.-Russia relations as well as educational and cultural exchange.

“The accusations look very ridiculous,” said Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University’s  Higher School of Economics. “Rossotrudnichestvo is accused of fulfilling its direct functions: financing exchange trips, lodging them in nice hotels, and organizing meetings with Russian diplomats and high-profile officials. In reality, it is what it is supposed to do. After all, the U.S. organizes the same trips and the same meetings as well as covers all expenses. And it’s normal international practice.”

Kenneth Martinez, one of the participants of the Rossotrudnichestvo-sponsored "Forum Generation Next. Russia and USA Innovative Cooperation" in 2011 doesn’t see anything suspicious in the program as well.

"The explicit goal of the trip was to find young people in business from about 25-35 to build future ties, and most of our meetings were tied to this and showing that Russia is and will be a good place to do business, “ he said. “No awkward meetings or approaches."

Suslov speculates that American intelligence is taking revenge on Russia for providing temporary political asylum to former NSA agent Edward Snowden, who revealed secret U.S. diplomatic cables and military intelligence.

“Given the sensitivity of the Snowden case for the U.S., American intelligence authorities decided to get revenge,” he said. “But it is the worst tool of revenge from the point of view of U.S.-Russia relations. After all, it is only now we see a consistent and systematic improvement in educational exchange programs which are crucial for establishing trust between two countries.”

Foglesong echoes this view. "If the FBI has evidence that led it to suspect Zaytsev of trying to recruit Americans as agents, then I think it would not be unreasonable for the FBI to question students," he said. "However, the timing of the publicity to this story several months after an American diplomat was arrested for spying in Moscow and in the midst of allegations about NSA spying on U.S. allies leads me to wonder about the origins of the publicity."

On the other hand, Suslov argues that the FBI probe may be related to last year’s USAID withdrawal from Russia that also complicated the relations between two countries.

When asked about the long-term implications for Russian-American relations, Suslov said that the FBI probe might resume the Cold War rhetoric and its “spirit.” And Russia might respond symmetrically.

“If the probe is on, Russia might question alumni of U.S. exchange programs, which will increase mistrust between Moscow and Washington and might end up with a diplomatic scandal. Yet, the absurdity of the situation is that Russia and the U.S. are not antagonists today.”

Goble believes that linking any problems in U.S.-Russia relations to a restoration of a “Cold War mentality” is a mistake.

“Indeed, those who invoke this are usually trying to suggest that the issue should not be raised at all, but governments around the world routinely do such things and so this is not evidence of any move to a new Cold War,” he said. “Rather, it is kind of problem that arises in many bilateral contexts.”

Foglesong argues that "it is reasonable to suspect that a hangover of the Cold War mentality may have affected the handling of the incident."

In figures

“The United States has been an unchallenged global leader in attracting international students as over 750,000 people from other countries study at U.S. universities,” according to the latest RD report, “Russian Soft Power 2.0.”

Meanwhile, Russia is the eighth-most popular higher education destination with 4 percent of the global market of international students.

“The U.S. has been the most represented country from the developed world with nearly 2,000 students enrolled in Russian universities, followed by Germany (1,300), France (850) and  Japan (700).”

According to its annual report, Rossotrudnichestvo was only responsible for approximately 650 stipends while the large majority of them were distributed via other channels including Russian embassies and ministries of education of foreign countries.

UPDATE: This article was updated on October 25, 2013 to include commentary from Rutgers professor David Foglesong