By Filipp Lebedev, Lucy Papachristou and Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) - The director of a top Russian science institute, arrested on suspicion of treason along with two other hypersonic missile technology experts, stands accused of betraying secrets to China, two people familiar with the case told Reuters.
Alexander Shiplyuk, head of Siberia's Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM), is suspected of handing over classified material at a scientific conference in China in 2017, the sources said.
The 56-year-old maintains his innocence and insists the information in question wasn't classified and was freely available online, according to the people, whom Reuters has chosen not to identify to safeguard their security.
"He is convinced of the fact that the information was not secret, and of his own innocence," one of the people said.
The nature of the allegations against the ITAM director, who was arrested last August, has not been previously reported. The Chinese connection would make Shiplyuk the latest in a string of Russian scientists who have been arrested in recent years for allegedly betraying secrets to Beijing.
Asked about the accusations facing the ITAM experts as well as about previous treason cases linked to China, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said security services were watchful for possible cases related to "betrayal of the motherland".
"This is very important work," he added. "It is going on constantly and it is hardly possible to speak here about any kind of trends."
The FSB security service didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese foreign ministry, when asked about allegations that Beijing had targeted Russian scientists to obtain sensitive research, said Sino-Russian relations were based on "non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third parties".
"This is fundamentally different from what some military and intelligence alliances have pieced together based on their Cold War mentality," it added.
President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Russia is a world leader in hypersonic missiles, cutting-edge weapons capable of carrying payloads at up to 10 times the speed of sound to punch through air-defence systems.
The ITAM cases, as well as previous arrests for treason, suggest Moscow is vigilant about losing any technological edge, including to China, an ally on which it has become increasingly reliant for political and trade support since launching its invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago.
Last year, laser specialist Dmitry Kolker was arrested in Siberia on treason charges but died two days later of cancer. His lawyer Alexander Fedulov told Reuters last week that Kolker was accused of passing secrets to China, an allegation that the scientist's family denied.
Alexander Lukanin, a scientist from the Siberian city of Tomsk, was arrested in 2020 on suspicion of passing tech secrets to Beijing, Russian state news agency TASS reported at the time. Last year, he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Valery Mitko, a scientist heading the Arctic Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, was also accused in 2020 of passing secrets to China, where he had travelled regularly to give lectures, TASS said at the time. He died two years later at the age of 81 while under house arrest.
'VERY SERIOUS ACCUSATIONS'
Against the background of the war in Ukraine, Russia's parliament voted last month to increase the maximum penalty for treason to life imprisonment from 20 years. On Tuesday, the head of the security committee of Russia's lower house of parliament backed a draft law tightening access to state secrets, saying 48 Russians had been convicted of treason between 2017 and 2022.
The cases facing Shiplyuk and his two ITAM colleagues - Anatoly Maslov and Valery Zvegintsev - are top secret and will be tried behind closed doors. A hearing in the case of Maslov, the first of the three to be arrested, in June last year, was due to take place in St Petersburg on Wednesday.
Zvegintsev was detained last month. The investigations into the three scientists hit world headlines last week when their colleagues at ITAM signed an open letter in support of them, complaining that it was impossible for scientists to do their jobs if they risked being arrested for writing articles or making presentations at international conferences.
The letter rejected the idea the three could have betrayed secrets, saying all materials they had published or presented had been rigorously checked to ensure they weren't classified.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov, asked by reporters last week about the open letter, said: "We have indeed seen this appeal, but Russian special services are working on this. They are doing their job. These are very serious accusations."
ITAM, sited at the Academgorodok science campus near the city of Novosibirsk, says on its website that it is registered as a part of Russia's military-industrial complex. The institute has had extensive international links including contacts with companies, universities and research centres across the world, according to a 2020 online document that outlined its work.
Among the institutions listed was the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center (CARDC), whose website includes several posts celebrating experimental breakthroughs relating to fighter jets and hypersonic missiles.
The CARDC site names the center's director as Wang Xunnian. According to two official Chinese local government websites, Wang is a major general in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).
A Reuters review of publicly available Chinese academic papers shows the center's researchers have in recent years co-authored dozens of articles with colleagues working in institutes run directly by the PLA.
The CARDC did not respond to emailed questions addressed to the center and Wang, while Reuters was unable to contact Wang directly.
'SHOCKED AND HORRIFIED'
Reuters interviewed two U.S. scientists, one of whom knew Maslov and the other Shiplyuk. They said the Russians were bona fide academics, although their area of study was sensitive because of its military applications.
Stuart Laurence, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, said he met Shiplyuk on two occasions, including at a conference in Tours, France in 2012 where the Russian scientist presented a paper with Maslov.
"I was shocked and horrified to see him arrested," said Laurence, who last exchanged emails with Shiplyuk in January 2021. "He was very well respected in his field."
George Nacouzi, senior aerospace engineer at RAND Corp, said China "has been playing catch-up" with the US and Russia over the last few years on hypersonic technology.
He stressed that the three arrested Russians were only involved in one element of the work needed to build a hypersonic missile, a process that also includes the integration of sensors, navigational systems, and propulsion.
"It's a long path. Just doing the basic research does not provide you with a missile," Nacouzi said.
(Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Ryan Woo in Beijing; Writing by Mark Trevelyan in London; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Pravin Char)