2019-01-11| Science & Technology
Kremlin jails nuclear scientists responsible for Russia's 'invincible' new weapons
Russia's recent jailing of two accomplished scientists who helped devise much of its highly vaunted nuclear arsenal is casting further doubt on dubious claims made about these weapons, and is evoking memories of Stalinist times.
The Russian press and government have made plentiful claims regarding two weapons undergoing testing that supposedly no foe will be able to withstand, although so far they have not backed up those assertions.
The jailing of the scientists who have intimate knowledge of these systems further undermines the credibility of the purported capabilities of these nuclear capable weapons.
Furthermore, the actions of the Kremlin have stirred up memories of the early Cold War, when scientific genius, paranoid accusations of treason and official repression went hand in hand.
Heightened scrutiny of these arrests comes amid more aggressive military moves by the Kremlin.
Russia's Defense Ministry announced at the beginning of the year that it is moving its Iskander-M missile system -- which is capable of launching a nuclear missile that is in violation of a bedrock international arms treaty -- to its brigade in Kaliningrad, the Russian territorial outpost between Poland and Lithuania.
'Victims' of the regime
The Kremlin has accused at least 10 employees of the Russian state space agency Roskosmos of leaking secrets about hypersonic weapons to NATO or China.
The alleged traitors include Viktor Kudryavtsev, 75, and Vladimir Lapygin, 76.
Both men helped create the same weapons that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have repeatedly called -- without evidence -- unbeatable, unstoppable and impenetrable.
The Kremlin accused Kudryavtsev of betraying information related to the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal/Dagger ballistic missile and to the much-hyped hypersonic Avangard missile to a "NATO country" in 2013.
He was arrested in July 2018, according to Kommersant.ru.
While Kudryavtsev now faces up to 20 years in jail, Putin has boasted about the Avangard system on two occasions.
At his state of the nation speech last March, Putin claimed Russia has developed a new generation of "invincible" weapons and during a cabinet session December 26 he praised the "unqualified success" in testing the missile.
Kudryavtsev sent two innocuous emails to colleagues in Europe for a joint research project, his defence attorney Ivan Pavlov said, calling Kudryavtsev's situation "the most outrageous" of all the state treason cases he has fought.
In August, the St. Petersburg Union of Scientists wrote to Putin urging him to "immediately concern yourself with the fate" of Kudyravtsev "for humanitarian reasons", according to Kommersant.ru.
The international project that he handled was "completely open and approved at all necessary levels", the authors wrote.
Kudryavtsev suffers from diabetes, heart disease and a number of other age-related illnesses, according to media reports.
One year before his own arrest, Kudryavtsev campaigned for Lapygin's freedom, The Daily Beast reported.
Lapygin was convicted of leaking to the Chinese "a software system able to compute optimised aerodynamic characteristics of hypersonic aircraft containing state secrets".
At his 2016 hearing, Lapygin testified that he shared only an introductory version of software in an effort to negotiate a contract between his employer, Roskosmos subsidiary the Central Research Institute of Machine Building (TsNIIMash), and Chinese partners.
He is serving a seven-year sentence in a high-security prison.
In August 2017, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial identified Lapygin as a political prisoner.
"The criminal prosecution of Vladimir Lapygin coincides with other so-called 'spy' and 'treason' cases," Memorial said in a statement, adding that such cases are intended to consolidate the power of authorities.
"We demand that he be released immediately, and that the officials responsible for his prosecution be brought to justice."
Invoking fear among scientific community
The stark contrast between the Kremlin's boastful pride in its new weapons systems and the harsh pursuit of so-called traitors who invented those weapons evokes memories of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's era.
At that time, weapons developers and other top scientists worked in sharashki (research institutes in prison camps, staffed completely by inmates) and feared for their lives.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 physicists knowledgeable about nuclear weapons remained in the field.
The latest arrests have scientists and human rights organisations concerned about a return to those terrifying times.
Pavel Luzin, a specialist in the space and defence industry at Perm State University, called Kudryavtsev a "scapegoat" and said the recent arrests could be designed to invoke fear in the scientific community.
"The Kremlin is very keen the truth about kinzhals doesn’t get out, for example, because they don’t actually exist as advertised," he said, according to UK-based newspaper The Independent.
"Russian state institutions, including the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry, have lists of secrets, which are also secret, so scientists often have no idea what they are not supposed to speak about," Pavlov, Kudryavtsev's lawyer, told The Daily Beast.
Gennady Gudkov, an opposition politician who worked in the KGB's counter-espionage section between 1982 and 1993, called the case "highly suspect".
"You have none of the usual tell-tale signs of espionage," he said, according to The Independent. "There is no motive, no link to a foreign handler, no secret communication, no sense of a reward -- whether that be cash or promise of asylum, no regular meetings."
Boris Shtern, a physicist at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Nuclear Research, also professed Kudryavtsev's innocence.
"They just picked him up to be their victim; and he is not the last one," he told The Daily Beast.
"In Soviet times the KGB was just standing over you for control, creating a complicated bureaucracy, but I cannot remember them putting random people in prison," he said.