There are at least two individuals associated with PICREADI that raise concern, one current and one former: Natalia Burlinova and Nikita Mendkovich.
Ms. Burlinova’s tenure within Kremlin-backed organizations is quite extensive, with her resume featuring the following organizations: Rosoboronexport–a state controlled intermediary dealing with military imports and exports; state-owned RIA Novosti; former program manager to the sanctioned and IEI watchlisted Gorchakov Fund; and current expert advisor to Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (a/k/a “Rossotrudnichestvo”), an entity unofficially doubling as plausible cover for Russian espionage and influence operations around the globe.
On 18 April 2023, the United States Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint alleging that Natalia Burlinova had served as an undisclosed agent of a foreign government by having conspired with an intelligence officer from Russia’s Federal Security Service (i.e., FSB); thus, violating 18 U.S.C. §951. Often referred to as “espionage lite”, Section 951 “generally involves espionage-like or clandestine behavior or an otherwise provable connection to an intelligence service, or information gathering or procurement-type activity on behalf of a foreign government.”
For her actions, the FBI placed Ms. Burlinova onto its Counterintelligence Wanted List. Prior to the unsealed criminal complaint, Ms. Burlionva had already been sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury on 29 July 2022.
According to the FBI’s accompanying affidavit, the conspiratorial relationship ranged from 2015 to 2021, with various interpolated acts of Ms. Burlinova being partially funded, guided and directed by the FSB intelligence officer. Therefore, without ever disclosing her governmental relationship as required by law, Ms. Burlinova engaged in activities on behalf of the Russian government that the FBI characterizes as a “years-long effort to influence the opinions of future leaders of the United States.”
An academic formerly affiliated with PICREADI was Nikita Mendkovich, an individual with an established history of having his ideas published, cited, or amplified by various outlets engaged in narrative laundering operations. Narrative laundering is a technique that attempts to move, sometimes through proxies, narratives from state-run origins to the broader media ecosystem. Often attempting to obfuscate the relationship, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (i.e., SVR) has been linked to proxy websites such as New Eastern Outlook, Oriental Review, and Strategic Culture Foundation, with New Eastern Outlook and Strategic Culture Foundation having been sanctioned for serving as SVR-directed outlets.
These proxy outlets have amplified Mr. Mendkovich’s ideas in various ways, to say nothing of the overtly sanctioned outlets RT and Sputnik. Mr. Mendkovich served as a regular contributor to the pseudo-academic publication New Eastern Outlook, an organization that counts among its “partners” entities well-known for disseminating a broad range of conspiracy theories. Furthermore, Mr. Mendkovich’s book was financed by the sanctioned and IEI watchlisted Gorchakov Diplomacy Fund, which was subsequently promoted by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS). While under the leadership of Leonid Reshetnikov, a former lieutenant general of the SVR, RISS would draft proposals on how to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
Currently, Mr. Mendkovich serves as an expert on two disreputable think-tanks (i.e., RIAC and Valdai Club), as well as serving as the Director of the Eurasian Analytical center. The analytical center has partnered with, amongst other entities, the Gorchakov Diplomacy Fund.
PICREADI appears to have followed a similar operational playbook to Rossotrudnichestvo, which also resulted in drawing the FBI’s concern and interviewing of past participants. The similarity or mirroring lies in how PICREADI implemented a study abroad program that was focused on fostering relationships with academic institutions–for example, Tufts University and University of Texas–and students. The study abroad program organized by PICREADI was referred to as “Meeting Russia”.
According to a previous “Meeting Russia” alumnus, there was never any feeling of recruitment efforts; however, this remark demonstrates a lack of understanding as to how the recruitment cycle of spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting of intelligence assets or sources functions. Before an individual can be developed and then recruited by an intelligence officer, potential candidates are often first assessed without, if done correctly, being made aware of the process. Through PICREADI’s “Meeting Russia” program, Ms. Burlinova compiled dossiers on attendees that consisted of their resumes, passport information, photographs, and analysis of their views towards Russia; thus, featuring elements often associated with a spotting–and–assessing operation. These dossiers were subsequently handed over to the FSB officer to likely gauge the feasibility of developing and recruiting an individual to serve as an asset or source.
One demonstrable example included in the FBI’s affidavit illustrates how Burlinova and the FSB officer even worked together inside of Europe:
“On October 5, 2018, Burlinova informed the FSB Officer about two prior participants in another Russian public diplomacy program in which Burlinova had been involved. Burlinova reported that the two prior participants, both of whom resided in a European country, were running for public office. Burlinova stated that these were the results that take years to come into fruition. The FSB Officer responded that this was truly the result for which they were striving and requested that Burlinova provide more information about these prior participants and the election for public office so that the FSB Officer could prepare a report. The two candidates ran for parliamentary positions; one won in that election, and the other was elected subsequently to parliament.”
In part, PICREADI and Ms. Burlinova’s activities were predicated on covert funding from the FSB, a fact never disclosed to the public. While the organization professed to be “public” and “independent in thought”, the actions laid out in the affidavit contradict these statements. Therefore, the simultaneous roles that Ms. Burlinova and PICREADI played has directly led to both being sanctioned by the United States.
In an attempt to defend herself and PICREADI, Ms. Burlinova published an open letter that former CIA officer Alex Finley described as a “masterclass in disinformation techniques”. More recently, Ms. Burlinova gave an interview framing herself as being unfairly punished under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for the meager crime of having failed to register with the government while promoting a study abroad program inside the United States, characterizing the criminal allegations against her as being political in nature and insinuating that FARA is a dangerous tool that can be imposed on anyone.
Despite her claim of having violated FARA, Ms. Burlinova stands accused of violating 18 U.S.C. §951 and §371. Notable alumni that’ve violated Section 951 include Maria Butina from the Mueller investigation as well as Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko from Operation Ghost Stories, the famed FBI counterintelligence investigation that led to the arrest of 10 Russian illegal agents that had been spying on behalf of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.
Third sector organizations such as nonprofits, think tanks, or foundations possessing meaningful links to or behaviours consistent with: malign influence and finance; financial and organised crime; narrative or reputation laundering; or espionage, amongst others, may morally corrode the nonprofit space. Additionally, any organization engaged in or associated with such activities can potentially serve as a vector for undermining western institutions and values as well as transatlantic relationships. Open-source information indicates PICREADI's senior leadership and its direct as well as indirect activities warrant the designation of this organization as a “high-risk NGO”. Therefore, PICREADI has been placed onto the Institute for European Integrity’s NGO Watchlist.