Russian scientists, experts in hypersonic technology, arrested for treason

As wartime Russia experiences a surge in treason cases, the arrests for high treason of three Russian academics who work on hypersonic missile technology on the same faculty in Siberia have drawn a rare, public outcry from Russia’s scientific community.

In an open letter published on Monday, Russian scientists protested the academics’ arrest, claiming the incidents had spread fear and warning weapons research could “collapse” as a result.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that the men were facing “very serious accusations” but declined to provide further details. Peskov confirmed he had seen the open letter and that Russian security services were continuing to work on the case.

The noise around the scientists’ case follows Ukraine’s claims to have struck down six of Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missiles during a barrage of missile strikes on Kyiv on Tuesday. The weapons are a type of air-launched ballistic missile, previously described by Russia as unstoppable and capable of overcoming all forms of air defense.

An intelligence update from Britain’s defense ministry on Wednesday said that Ukraine’s air defenses had exposed an “apparent vulnerability” that “is likely a surprise and an embarrassment for Russia.”

Valery Zvegintsev, Anatoly Maslov and Alexander Shiplyuk — all employees of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Siberian branch, in Novosibirsk — all stand accused of treason. The cases have been shrouded in secrecy with sparse details about the nature of their cases. Under Russian law, people found guilty of sharing state secrets face up to 20 years in jail.

In Monday’s open letter, colleagues of the scientists demanded an “urgent solution,” protesting the academics’ innocence and claiming their arrest would inflict serious damage on Russian science.

“All of them are known for their brilliant scientific results. … [They have devoted] their lives to serving Russian science. Our colleagues have always remained true to the interests of the country,” read the letter. “We know each of them as a patriot and a decent person who is not capable of doing what the investigating authorities suspect them of.”

Maslov was reportedly arrested last July and accused of transferring secret data on hypersonic research to China. His colleague Shiplyuk was arrested a month later.

News of Zvegintsev’s arrest were first made public in the open letter. Russian state newswire Tass has since reported that Zvegintsev was detained last month and is currently under house arrest. Zvegintsev, who has published more than 300 scientific papers, was arrested in connection with an article he wrote on gas dynamics in an Iranian journal, according to Tass.

A fourth colleague at another research institute in Novosibirsk, Dmitry Kolker, was also arrested last July on suspicion of treason last summer. He reportedly had pancreatic cancer and died while in detention.

In the open letter, scientists wrote that the academics had been presenting their findings publicly for years and that their papers have been repeatedly checked in line with secrecy protocols. The academics work did not “harm the security of our Motherland but, on the contrary, increases the prestige of Russian science around the world,” said colleagues.

“Scientific organizations and their employees need a clear understanding, based on the law, where the line lies between working for the good of the Motherland and treason,” read the letter.

Since the beginning of this year, Russia has seen an uptick in treason cases. Historically, such cases have typically involved military figures or scientists who were investigated over the course of years, and kept top secret. But in recent months, ordinary citizens have been charged, many in connection to Ukraine.

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Dmitry Zair-Bek, head of the rights group First Department, which monitors such cases, says that the number for the first few months of the year has ballooned in comparison to previous years. Thirty cases can be confirmed through open sources, he said, but the number is probably much higher.

The Novosibirsk cases are not the only recent treason cases against Russian scientists. Last October, a court in Tomsk sentenced scientist Alexander Lukanin to seven years and six months in a prison colony. He was accused of treason for allegedly transferring secret Russian developments related to alternative power sources to China.

In an interview, Zair-Bek described treason cases against scientists as “a game of Russian roulette” that are “counterintuitive.”

“God knows why they are imprisoning obviously innocent scientists with a worldwide reputation who develop Russian science and, in fact, actually work for the benefit of the Russian military-industrial complex,” he said.

“Research in the field of aerogas dynamics finds practical application in many things. But among them, aircraft and missiles, including military ones, are especially important for the country’s leadership.”

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