A physicist working in hypersonic aircraft research, Alexander Kuranov, became the latest such scientist to be found guilty of high treason, for activities usually considered as a normal part of a scientist’s work but considered a crime by the Kremlin.

The City Court of St. Petersburg sentenced the 76-year-old man to 7 years in a maximum-security colony and fined him 100,000 rubles ($1,100) on Thursday, April 18.

Kuranov is the latest of more than a dozen scientists involved in various area of hypersonic research to have been arrested and charged with the same offence – treason in contravention of Russia’s Article 275 of the Criminal Code; he had been held in preventative custody since August 2021. At least three of the other scientists who have been detained have died in prison.

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He is the former general director and chief designer of the St. Petersburg Research Enterprise for Hypersonic Systems (NIPGS). As such according to Russian Interfax he took part in the development of the Ajax hypersonic aircraft, authored a number of articles and patents relating to hypersonic aircraft and missiles and participated in seminars and cooperated with US and Chinese colleagues.

Daria Lebedeva head of the press service of the courts of St. Petersburg said that Kuranov’s hearing was held behind closed doors, as the case was classified and was resolved in only two sessions. The sentence handed to him was less than the lower limit provided for the crime as his sentence was reduced because of unspecified “exceptional circumstances.”

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While some of the scientists arrested over the last six years were working directly on hypersonic weapons such as the Kinzhal, Tsirkon and Avangard missiles others were involved in various areas of pure hypervelocity research or related areas. All were accused following activities that, in the West, are considered as a normal part of a scientist’s work – attending conferences, publishing papers, and collaborating and sharing findings.

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Scientists were arrested from several Russia’s leading institutes including Moscow’s Central Scientific Research Institute of Mechanical Engineering (TsNIIMash), the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute named after Professor Zhukovsky (TsAGI), the Novosibirsk Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITPM) and the Institute of Laser Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Moscow Times reported that Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) had begun to take an active interest in specialists in this field as a result of Putin’s 2018 announcement to the Federal Assembly that Russia’s hypersonic missiles were “unparalleled in the world,” could overcome all modern missile defense systems and will be “virtually invulnerable.”

It quoted unnamed FSB officers as saying their investigations were tasked and they were required to report their findings to the “highest level.”

Evgeny Smirnov a lawyer who has defended a number of those accused of treason said the FSB motivation “was not to find the guilty, but to imprison several people in each institute,” to publicly demonstrate that they were preventing foreign agencies from accessing information on Russian missiles “that were the best in the world.”

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