Three leading scientists from the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM) in Novosibirsk have been arrested on suspicion of high treason in what fellow scientists have declared a ‘witch hunt.’

Aerodynamics specialist Dr Valery Zvyagintsev, 78, is the latest of three prominent scientists to be arrested on these extremely serious charges along with Anatoly Maslov and Alexander Shiplyuk, who were arrested in 2022. A fourth Siberian scientist, the laser specialist Dmitry Kolker, despite suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer was arrested last year on suspicion of state treason and flown to Moscow where he died two days later.

Under Russian law, those found guilty of divulging state secrets face up to 20 years in prison.

The three scientists are seen as key figures in the development of Russia’s hypersonic weapons program including the Kinzhal, Avangard and Zircon hypersonic missiles.

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Kinzhal hypersonic missile.Photo: wikicommons

Dr. Valery Zvyagintsev

Photo: itam.nsc.ru

Prof. Anatoly Maslov

Photo: social media

Dr. Alexander Shiplyuk

Photo: social media

Dr. Dmitry Kolker

Photo: Alexander Fefelov

News of their detention comes days after a Russian attack on Kyiv using six Kinzhal missiles, along with conventional cruise and ballistic missiles as well as ‘kamikaze drones,’ was largely ineffective. In particular was the claim by Ukrainian officials claiming that US-supplied Patriot air defence systems had downed the Kinzhals, a missile that Vladimir Putin once boasted were ‘unstoppable.’

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In an open letter to the Kremlin, other scientists at the Khristianovich institute have protested the arrests, claiming the men were being prosecuted over normal scientific activity such as making presentations and taking part in international conferences and projects, and publishing articles in major journals.

A review of relevant academic conferences, stretching back over many years, show the arrested scientists were frequent participants.

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For instance, in 2012, Maslov and Shiplyuk presented the results of an experiment on hypersonic missile design at a seminar in Tours, France and in 2016, all three were among the authors of a book chapter entitled “Hypersonic Short-Duration Facilities for Aerodynamic Research at ITAM, Russia.”

 In the open letter from ITAM it said that all materials presented by the scientists in international forums had been checked repeatedly to ensure they did not include restricted information. 

Some commentators have categorized the arrests as desperate attempts by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) to compensate for the shortcomings displayed in their intelligence briefings prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The number of treason cases in Russia increased rapidly as the FSB was eager to emphasise their work uncovering foreign spies while Putin and the Russian leadership spoke of the West trying to undermine Russia.

Asked to comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was aware of the open letter from the Siberian scientists in defense of the three men but was unclear on the details of the case and concluded that it was a matter for the security services and refused to comment further.

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The scientists have warned that the flurry of arrests could destroy their areas of research as the FSB-led witch hunt is already spooking young scientists.

“We’re not only scared for our colleagues: We simply do not understand how to do our job anymore,” the letter said, adding that they fear “any article or report can now trigger treason charges.”

“The best students are already refusing to work with us while our best young employees are leaving scientific research.”

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