Russia is purging weapons scientists as spy hysteria grips the Kremlin war machine

The recent wave of internal spy hysteria has led many to wonder if the war in Ukraine is breaking the psyche of the Kremlin’s leadership.
russian spy
Getty Images (Credit: Anton Petrus)

In May 2023, ​​Anatoly Maslov, a 76-year-old professor of aerodynamics at Russia’s Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk, was put on trial for selling hypersonic missile secrets to China. He was apprehended with two colleagues in June 2022, and charged with treason.

He had the opportunity to pass Russian missile technology to Chinese colleagues at a 2010 conference, but what’s unclear is his suspected motive. The Khristianovich Institute is widely considered a loyalist institution. Motive hardly matters to the Russian state security apparatus, however.

Since Maslov was sent to the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center, a wave of arrests has overtaken the Russian scientific community, leaving researchers to wonder who might be detained next.

The recent wave of internal spy hysteria has led many to wonder if the war in Ukraine is breaking the psyche of Moscow’s leadership. There have been more than 100 cases within the past year alone, a sharp uptick from the 16 alleged spies that were apprehended in 2016, according to the Guardian.

Unlike the case of Maslov, most of the scientists charged with treason are suspected of helping the war effort against Russia in Ukraine. The Soviet-style purges are having a chilling effect on scientific research inside Russia, exactly the opposite of what Russian military forces need at the moment.

The arrests have led to scientists banding together against the Kremlin, writing a letter to demand the release of their colleague. Dozens of researchers from the institute have added their names to the open letter, which could end up with all of them facing lifetime prison sentences.

Arresting researchers, they argue, would have a “chilling effect” on scientific research, especially where weaponry and state secrets are concerned. They say that attending conferences, publishing work in journals, and collaborating on international projects are all a part of their work.

Lawyers for the researchers argue that scientists are just easy targets for security services looking for scapegoats as Russia takes increasing losses in its war with Ukraine. They come from the old school of Soviet investigators and know that arresting researchers makes it look like they are doing something to help.

The only way the persecution stops, they say, is when the regime ends.

russian spy photo
Getty Images (Credit: Grant Faint)

Two other scientists arrested on treason charges have died in custody while awaiting trial. Maslove himself suffered two heart attacks during his pretrial detention. A purge of researchers isn’t the first sign the Russian government is collapsing on itself since the start of the war over a year ago.

At least four separate Russian factions are at odds with each other over the war and operate near the war’s front lines. Anti-Putin Russian partisans have begun cross-border raids in the Belgorod Region, along Russia’s border with Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the mercenary company the Wagner Group, has openly called for the arrest and execution of Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The regular Russian Army currently occupies Bakhmut while Wagner forces have withdrawn from the front entirely (for the moment), while Chechen leaders criticize Wagner for hurting Russian morale. The recent spate of treason charges brings the divide deeper into Russian society, far from the war’s front.

With experts fearful of making new breakthroughs in scientific research, there will be no technological wonder weapon to help end the war in a Russian victory. The victory, if it ever comes, will have to be won by an increasingly fractured alliance of forces that no longer trust one another.