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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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October 24th, 2013
05:52 PM ET

A Russian spy on American soil?

Yury Zaytsev may look like a mild-mannered Russian diplomat with an unbridled passion for the folklore and architecture of the motherland.

But in the eyes of the FBI, he could be involved in intelligence recruiting.

It's hard to know what to take away from this latest round of spy games between the United States and Russia.

Is Zaytsev a Russian spy on American soil, or is he a Russian bureaucrat who runs a cultural exchange to bring Americans to Russia?

"I think it’s a stupid situation because it’s like the Cold War," said Zaytsev.

The FBI seems to think Zaytsev has been using the Russian center for culture trips to assess and recruit intelligence assets.

That information surfaced in a report from the progressive magazine Mother Jones.

Zaytsev vigorously denied it to CNN on Thursday.

"No, I am not recruiting. I send information about, if you want, welcome to Russia," he said.

In the past two years, 128 young Americans have taken the all-expense paid "fact-finding" trips the center sponsors. They attended cultural events and also met members of the Russian government.

The FBI has been interviewing people who've been on them, like Richard Portwood, 27, who traveled there in 2011 and 2012.

"They wanted to know how the trip was organized, who we visited on the trip, what type of activities we did while we were in Russia," said Portwood, a graduate student at Georgetown University who heads a group aimed at overcoming Cold War stereotypes.

"The FBI told me that he is a member of the foreign intelligence agency whose mission is to build relationships with Americans and part of the way that he does this is by organizing these cultural visits to Russia where members, participants, allegedly are spotted and assessed for future intelligence purposes in Russia," said Portwood.

"From my personal experience I didn't see anything suspicious," Portwood said of his travels.

Portwood said Zaytsev never went on the exchange trips and had limited dealings with participants.

The FBI isn't talking but a law enforcement source confirms to CNN it is investigating the cultural center, specifically digging into the type of activities engaged in during the trips.

The allegations "contain nothing in common with the reality," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

While the Cold War officially ended some years ago, the U.S.-Russian rivalry and spy craft is thriving.

In May, American diplomat Ryan Fogle was detained in Moscow with some terrible wigs, dark glasses, and foreign cash. Russian intelligence agency claimed he was trying to recruit spies. He was deemed “persona non grata” and sent packing from Moscow, sans wig.

And there also was "Operation Ghost Stories," a Russian spy ring broken up by the FBI that introduced the world to Anna Chapman.

The memorable red headed spy is now a popular talk show host in Russia.

Zaytsev insists he's no spy.

"Russian cultural center is open, welcome to our events, our special exhibitions and welcome to Russia," said Zaytsev.

But just in case, he's planning an exit strategy.

"I think maybe I go to Russia for vacation after several weeks," Zaytsev said.

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