Russian scientists on trial for treason

Hypersonic missile expert has been accused of betraying state secrets
26 May 2023

Interview with 

Mark Galeotti, UCL


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The seventy-six year-old Russian scientist, Anatoly Maslov, is to stand trial for treason over claims that he and two of his colleagues betrayed state secrets. The arrest of the three hypersonic missile experts has spooked the country’s scientific community, which has warned that prosecuting them sets a dangerous precedent and risks damaging Russian research. It comes as the war between Russia and Ukraine continues to rage, with Moscow anticipating a huge counter-offensive by Kyiv’s army. Mark Galeotti is an honorary professor at UCL and the author of Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine.

Mark - There are three essentially hypersonic and aerodynamic specialists from the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk Siberia. And the allegation is that at a conference in 2017, they passed classified information to Chinese scientists. And as a result of this, they are currently on trial for treason, which faces a life sentence if they're actually found convicted. The point is though, this is also just part of a trend. I mean, we've now had fully 16 members just to the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences who have been arrested by the FSB, the Federal Security Service, of late. So there clearly is a much wider crackdown going on.

Chris - The way that science is conducted, though, internationally is that scientists will go to other countries, they will share information, they will exchange ideas. Even in World War II we had physicists collaborating and writing between Germany, America, the UK for example, because science was going on despite war. That's how we do science. It's called peer review. So is there a sort of blurring of the boundaries here between what they're doing as legitimate science and what they're doing in terms of giving away state secrets and is that the bone of contention?

Mark - Really what this is, is a clash between two cultures. You have the scientific culture which in Russia, absolutely as everywhere else, is not just interested in peer review and cooperation, but precisely also does so on an international basis. And you travel to the conferences, you read the papers, you write the papers because you want to learn as well as share. And then you have the culture of the increasingly powerful security operators, particularly the FSB, which is firstly unaware really of how science works and doesn't really care either. Secondly, is gripped by a particular mood of paranoia these days. And thirdly is also increasingly worried about what's meant to be Russia's great ally - China. Because we've seen a lot of espionage related cases involving China of late. And so I think they've now come to the stage where everybody who has any real contact with the Chinese is a potential traitor.

Chris - And what have been the repercussions, ramifications, and reactions from the scientific community in Russia?

Mark - Well, interestingly, again, we are told often that basically the Russian people are downtrodden and submissive to the state. But what's striking is actually the degree to which, at the moment, the scientists are standing up. They're writing open letters, they're petitioning local and national officials to try and not only get Maslov and his co-defendants freed, but also just trying to push back against this increasing tide of prosecutions of scientists for doing science. So, although it's not exactly the sort of thing which is going to bring crowds out onto the streets, but nonetheless, it is striking that the intellectual and scientific elite of Russia are doing what they can to highlight these cases and push back.

Chris - And is the regime receptive?

Mark - Well, look, on the one hand the answer is obviously it needs the output of these scientists. Putin has made much after all of Russia's leading edge weapons technology, including hypersonics. And that all requires a good solid scientific base to get anywhere. But at the same time, unfortunately the impact of the war in Ukraine, the sanctions, and the general sort of alienation of Russia from the rest of the world means that at the moment, security operators are very much in the ascendant. So, I mean, what I'm hearing, frankly, from people I know in Russia is that yes, they'll protest, they don't actually expect to have great impact and to a degree they're hunkering down and they're doing what they need to do to survive in this new era.

Chris - And just very briefly, Mark, do we read anything into this about the war effort?

Mark - Not so much the war effort because, in some ways, the gap between the theoretical and even applied science and actually the production of finished weapons is such that in the current and just over the horizon weapons were really designed 10 plus years ago. It's more about how the war is changing the culture of Russia. That is the real impact here.


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