Hypersonic paranoia. As treason cases at the highest level of Russian science pile up, is Kremlin-sanctioned spy mania out of control? — Novaya Gazeta Europe
StoriesSociety

Hypersonic paranoia

As treason cases at the highest level of Russian science pile up, is Kremlin-sanctioned spy mania out of control?

Hypersonic paranoia

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet tests Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles off the coast of annexed Crimea, 9 January 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE / ALEXEI DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL

On 21 May, a St. Petersburg court sentenced 77-year-old scientist Anatoly Maslov to 14 years in prison for treason. A leading global specialist on hypersonic physics with an illustrious career, Maslov had already spent two years in an FSB isolation unit while prosecutors prepared the case against him for allegedly sharing details of Russia’s hypersonic weapons programme with a foreign government. Maslov has always maintained that the charges against him are baseless. Should he live to see the end of his sentence he will be 90 years old.

The summer of 2022 saw three leading Russian scientists arrested one after the other. Perhaps the most dramatic case was that of Dmitry Kolker, a laser physicist who was arrested while battling stage four pancreatic cancer in hospital. Forcibly removed from his bed and flown to Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, Kolker died two days later.

Maslov himself was detained that July in the city of Novosibirsk, where he worked as chief researcher at the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Maslov’s research focus was gas dynamics, and his discoveries were instrumental in the development of hypersonic weapons — weapons which travel many times faster than the speed of sound.

Anatoly Maslov at his treason trial in St. Petersburg, 21 May 2024. Photo: Andrey Bok / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Anatoly Maslov at his treason trial in St. Petersburg, 21 May 2024. Photo: Andrey Bok / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had reason to believe that Maslov had passed secret hypersonic weapons research to German intelligence in 2014. While very little is known about the case, it appears that the FSB found out about the alleged transfer of classified documents eight years after it occurred. Due to the state secrets involved, his trial was conducted behind closed doors.

State prosecutors requested Maslov be given a 17-year sentence in a high-security prison colony, something Maslov’s defence team baulked at, given that the 77-year-old had already suffered a heart attack during his two-year stint in pretrial detention, and argued that their client would be unable to serve a sentence of even half that duration.

Given Vladimir Putin’s pride that Russia’s hypersonic weapons are currently the best in the world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that researchers working in the field have borne the brunt of his paranoia.

Maslov’s defence lawyer argued a crime could not possibly have taken place, as even if Maslov had passed on the information he was charged with sharing, it wasn’t classified — a fact the FSB appears simply to have ignored. In a prepared statement, Maslov stressed that he had dedicated his entire life to his family and to the national science programme and categorically denied any wrongdoing.

Yevgeny Smirnov, a lawyer for First Department, a legal advocacy group that specialises in closed trials, described the sentence as part of the “trend towards harsher punishments” in the Russian judicial system since the war in Ukraine began. He said that the 14 years Maslov had received was “perhaps a record” for a sentence given to a scientist and added that “the worsening trend in cases brought against scientists accused of treason is in line with the general trend for anyone charged with threatening national security”.

Asked about Maslov’s chances of surviving a prison sentence of such a length, Smirnov struck a surprisingly practical tone. “In this case, you know, everything depends very much on the person, on the support they receive, and on the penal colony they end up in. I don’t know where Maslov will serve his sentence; he will only be transferred after his appeal,” Smirnov continued. “But again, he’s 77 years old, and he has spent two years behind bars. According to his lawyers, his health has deteriorated during that time. And a sentence of 14 years, I’m afraid, may become a life sentence, just taking into account average life expectancy in Russia and the medicine available to prisoners.”

While Smirnov acknowledged that Maslov’s case had gone on for so long because the defence team hadn’t given up hope, he also said that treason charges were very rarely overturned.

The Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Photo: Wikimedia

The Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Photo: Wikimedia

But Maslov is not the only scientist in his field to have been prosecuted. Eleven Russian specialists in hypersonic technology have been convicted of treason since 2015. Given Vladimir Putin’s pride that Russia’s hypersonic weapons are currently the best in the world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that researchers working in the field — three of whom have died while awaiting trial — have borne the brunt of his paranoia.

Indeed, several of the Russian hypersonic researchers responsible for the country’s global preeminence in the field are now languishing in prison or are awaiting their fate in pretrial detention. Many were involved in Transhyberian, an officially sanctioned collaborative research project with the EU, according to scientific journal T-Invariant.

“We are not only afraid for the fate of our colleagues. We simply don’t know how to continue doing our job.” 

Moscow State Technical University professor, Vladimir Lapygin, 74, was the first to be arrested and charged with passing state secrets to China. Though Lapygin insisted he was innocent, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in a high-security penal colony in 2016, and was recognised as a political prisoner by Russian human rights organisation Memorial, which described him as a victim of “spy-mania designed to support the image of ‘a Russia encircled by enemies’ created by state propaganda”.

Viktor Kudryavtsev. Photo: Wikimedia

Viktor Kudryavtsev. Photo: Wikimedia

In 2018, 75-year-old scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev was arrested for allegedly passing classified information to the Belgian Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics, where the Transhyberian project was based. A year later, the FSB arrested Roman Kovalyov, also for allegedly passing classified Russian hypersonic research to the Von Karman Institute. While Kudryavtsev maintained his innocence, Kovalyov pleaded guilty and testified against Kudryavtsev after allegedly being pressured by FSB investigator Alexander Chaban. However, in a tragic turn, the two scientists were subsequently diagnosed with cancer and both died shortly after being released for treatment.

In 2020, scientist Anatoly Gubanov was imprisoned for allegedly sharing reports containing Russian state secrets to his supervisor on another international hypersonics project HEXAFLY-INT. According to his lawyer, Gubanov was subjected to intense psychological pressure by investigators in the run up to his admission of guilt and his eventual decision to make a plea deal.

Six months after Gubanov’s arrest, it was the turn of Russia’s leading hypersonic aircraft specialist Valery Golubkin to be prosecuted. The charges he faced also related to HEXAFLY-INT, though Golubkin maintained his innocence and was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum security penal colony, where he is currently awaiting his appeal hearing. In an unexpected turn of events, however, Gubanov ultimately broke the terms of his deal and refused to give evidence against Golubkin in court, meaning that he too was then sentenced to 12 years in a high-security penal colony.

Valery Golubkin and his lawyer at a court hearing, 26 June 2023. Photo: Tatiana Gomozova / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Valery Golubkin and his lawyer at a court hearing, 26 June 2023. Photo: Tatiana Gomozova / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In 2021, the FSB detained 73-year-old scientist Alexander Kuranov for sharing state secrets with foreign intelligence services at a Russian-American research symposium in St. Petersburg. Kuranov admitted guilt, was sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security penal colony, and is believed to have testified against Maslov.

And still the arrests continue. In December, Vladislav Galkin, an associate professor on hypersonic technologies at Tomsk Polytechnic University was detained in Novosibirsk and is currently awaiting trial.

Alexander Shiplyuk. Photo: itam.nsc.ru

Alexander Shiplyuk. Photo: itam.nsc.ru

Several more of Maslov’s erstwhile colleagues at Novosibirsk’s Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics have also been arrested. In 2022, 56-year-old Alexander Shiplyuk was detained and transferred to a detention facility in Moscow for allegedly sharing classified hypersonic research at a conference in China, while Valery Zvegintsev, a 79-year-old hypersonic aerodynamic specialist, was detained by the FSB and placed under house arrest in 2023 for an article he wrote for an Iranian science journal. Both are currently awaiting trial.

In 2023, after yet another arrest, researchers at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics published an open letter to the Russian authorities in which they stressed the patriotism of Maslov, Shiplyuk and Zvegintsev. The letter also suggested that the men had been prosecuted for sharing research with the wider international community, which they said was considered “an obligatory component of conscientious and high-quality scientific activity”.

The authors of the letter, which is no longer available online and to which the authorities have not replied, went on to say that: “We are not only afraid for the fate of our colleagues. We simply don’t know how to continue doing our job.”

The silence from the wider Russian scientific community has been deafening, however, with no other institutes or organisations making public statements of support for the scientists implicated in the Novosibirsk treason cases. Indeed, for now, the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics appears to be the sole body unafraid to speak up for its persecuted colleagues.

pdfshareprint
Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.