Russian scientists are accused of giving secrets away to China

Over the past year, these three scientists have all been arrested by the Russian government and charged with treason.

Russian scientists are accused of giving secrets away to China
A Kh-47 Kinzhal Russian hypersonic missile warhead, shot down by a Ukrainian Air Defence unit amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, is seen at a compound of the Scientific Research Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine May 12, 2023. Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko

The backstory: Russia says it’s a world leader in hypersonic missiles, which are weapons that can move at 10 times the speed of sound to break through air-defense systems. Some Western leaders have argued that the country isn’t quite as advanced as it says it is, though.

Either way, three Russian scientists, Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev, have been doing research into hypersonic aircraft in the country for years. Zvegintsev actually founded a laboratory for researching hypersonic tech in 2001, and Shiplyuk was brought on to lead the laboratory in 2006. All three are members of a science institute called the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM). They helped develop Russia’s Kinzhal missile program. Part of this research, and, well, being an academic in general, includes writing papers and speaking at international conferences.

More recently: Over the past year, these three scientists have all been arrested by the Russian government and charged with treason. And Russia recently upped the max penalty for treason from 20 years to life imprisonment last month, too. Allegedly, the scientists are suspected of handing over classified material on hypersonic technology to China a few years ago. Russia has said they face “serious accusations,” but it’s not been super detailed about the situation.

The development: This week, members of ITAM published an open letter talking about the scientists’ arrests and protesting their charges. The letter basically says that it’s impossible for ITAM and its scientists to do their job without participating in the international science community and that the kind of information they would be sharing doesn’t include state secrets, and it’s actually essential all over the world.

The first of the scientists, Maslov, will stand trial next week. But the scientists at ITAM are saying that the three are innocent. Shiplyuk has also said that the info he did share with China wasn't classified at all and was actually even available online.

Then why would he and his colleagues have been arrested? Well, former head of Ukraine's foreign intelligence service Mykola Malomuzh theorizes that these accusations are coming after some Kinzhal strikes on Ukraine haven’t been causing as much damage as they’re supposed to, with Ukraine actually shooting many of them down and allegedly intercepting one with a US-made Patriot air defense system. But Russia has denied that the interception has happened at all. Basically, Malomuzh says Putin was “deceived” about how good the weapons actually were.

Key comments:

“[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,” reads part of the ITAM open letter.

“The work we’re awarded for and lauded as examples for today becomes grounds for criminal prosecution tomorrow. In these circumstances, it’s simply impossible for our institute to work,” the letter said.

"This is very important work," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said about watching out for treason. "It is going on constantly and it is hardly possible to speak here about any kind of trends."

Referring to the Kinzhal attacks as ending in “complete failure,” Mazhmoul said to Ukrainian outlet TSN, “Therefore, the fate of these Daggers' developers will also end in complete failure, because they undermined the strategic basis of Russia's combat capability.”