As Russia’s war in Ukraine has grown into an existential conflict for the Kremlin over the past 15 months, its search for internal enemies has intensified, with a sharp rise in treason cases that experts have equated to a “spymania”.
While many of the treason cases focus on those allegedly fighting for or aiding Ukraine, others have burrowed into seemingly loyal state institutions, such as the scientific research centres that helped research the very weaponry that Russia is using to strike Ukraine.
Last week, the first of three hypersonic missile scientists to have been arrested on suspicion of treason went on trial in a case where the evidence and accusations remain secret. All were from a single institute in Novosibirsk, the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM).
Anatoly Maslov, a 76-year-old professor of aerodynamics at the institute, is thought to be suspected of passing secrets to China, possibly a result of his participation in international conferences on aerodynamics in the 2010s.
The arrest of the respected scientist and two colleagues has led to a rare backlash among the scientific community at his institute, which published an open letter calling for his release.
“We know each of these [scientists] as a patriot and a sound person incapable of doing what the investigators have accused them of,” wrote a collective of dozens of Maslov’s colleagues, who also demanded the release of Alexander Shiplyuk, the director of ITAM, and Valery Zvegintsev, a chief researcher.
The men could face the rest of their lives behind bars, the letters read, for their “quality” work that included presenting at international conferences, publishing in international journals and participating in international projects.
Maslov has had two heart attacks and spent time in hospital since his arrest last June in Novosibirsk, Reuters reported, citing a source close to the scientist.
The cases also put the entire scientific community at risk, the letter went on, and have sent a chilling effect across research areas to anything that could be deemed secret.
“In this situation, we are not only afraid for the fates of our colleagues,” the letter read. “We simply do not understand how we can do our work any more.”
Another researcher in aerodynamics said his colleagues were furious and scared about the arrests and that there was a sense that “nobody in this area is safe”. “The mood is that they can hunt down any one of us,” the person said.
The case shows the growing appetite of the security services for high-ranking treason and espionage cases, say experts, who have been given a signal that there is a demand for similar prosecutions.
“None of these scientists are spies,” said Ivan Pavlov, a leading Russian lawyer and expert in espionage and treason cases, who now lives outside Russia. “They are an easy target for the chekists,” meaning the security services.
Russia’s loose definition of spying makes it easy to initiate cases against them for working in international projects, even those initiated long before Russia’s war with Ukraine.
“The [security services] can arrest these easy targets and say look, we are doing something,” said Pavlov. “They’re all old. They’re all Soviet. They all trusted this system. And they’re like putty for the investigators. And they easily start to give testimony against one another.”
The number of new treason cases each year may have risen by as much as six or seven times since the mid 2010s, said Pavlov. According to state data, he said, there were about 16 cases in 2016. His impression was that there were more than 100 cases in the last year alone.
While special committees are required to review any of the material that the scientists publish in international journals, their membership is unlikely to be targeted because investigators are looking for big cases to impress the leadership and earn promotions.
“The chekists won’t make a career on those cases but they will for cases of state treason,” Pavlov said. “There’s a demand for these cases. And it comes from the very top of the Kremlin. And all those who fulfil that demand will be rewarded.”
He added: “I’m not full of optimism. This will all end poorly for the scientists. And for Russian science in general. All this spymania in science will continue as long as the regime remains.”
In October last year, Valery Mitko, an 81-year-old Russian scientist arrested on high treason charges, died while under house arrest after several heart attacks. And in July, Dmitry Kolker, 54, the director of the Laboratory of Quantum Optics at Novosibirsk State University held in a spy investigation, died two days after he was arrested while being treated in a hospital for stage 4 cancer.
“If the regime changes, the war ends, then all this could go away,” Pavlov said. “But until then, they’ll keep jailing old scientists. And killing then. They already have a few on their conscience.”