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Russian hypersonic missile scientists are arrested on treason charges

The Kremlin said Wednesday that three scientists face “very serious accusations” after a rare public outcry that comes as Ukraine claimed it had shot many of the missiles down.
Kyiv Mayor Klitschko shows a Kh-47 Kinzhal Russian hypersonic missile warhead in Kyiv.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko inspects a Russian hypersonic missile shot down by Ukrainian air defenses last week. Kyiv's apparent ability to stop the missiles has dealt another blow to the Kremlin's war effort.Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters via Redux

Russia’s hypersonic missiles have taken a dual hit this week from Patriots fired by Ukraine and “patriots” arrested at home.

Once touted as unstoppable, the program faces growing domestic fallout from treason charges against three scientists who worked on the technology, just as Kyiv claims its U.S.-supplied air defense systems have been able to shoot many of the missiles down.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that the scientists face “very serious accusations” after a rare public outcry over a wartime crackdown that has fueled a growing sense of unease across Russian society.

In an open letter criticizing the arrests published Monday, colleagues of the three academics in hypersonic technology warned that Russia’s research on the subject faces “impending collapse.” 

The three scientists — Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev — were employees of the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. They were all detained on suspicion of high treason over the past year, according to the letter published on the institute’s website. 

The letter professes the men’s innocence and praises their academic achievements, adding that all three chose to stay in Russia rather than accept highly paid and prestigious work abroad. 

“We know each of them as a patriot and a decent person who is not capable of doing what the investigating authorities suspect them of,” it said. 

It is rare and risky in modern Russia to speak out in defense of people charged with treason, especially after a bill was adopted last month increasing the maximum sentence for the crime to life in jail. 

The Russian state media agency Tass reported on the arrests of Maslov and Shiplyuk last summer and on Zvegintsev’s this week. It said Zvegintsev was detained about three weeks ago and is under house arrest. NBC News could not verify those details. 

Shiplyuk was in charge of the laboratory of hypersonic technologies at the institute, which has “unique hypersonic aerodynamic installations designed to study the fundamental and applied problems of hypersonic flight,” according to his bio on the website. Maslov is a renowned expert in the field of aerogasdynamics, it said

The institute released an open letter in support of Maslov after he was arrested in June for what it said was “high treason,” saying his colleagues were “shocked” by his detention. It was also raising money on behalf of the families of Maslov and Shiplyuk to cover their legal expenses. 

Tass reported this week that the materials in Maslov’s case are classified and have been handed over to a judge in a St. Petersburg court. The agency said Maslov’s case was investigated by the FSB, Russia’s secret service. 

While the details of their cases have not been made public, the open letter by their colleagues said the three men could have been arrested for simply doing their jobs, including making presentations at global conferences and taking part in international scientific projects. Their work was also repeatedly checked by the institute’s expert commission to ensure it did not include “restricted information,” the letter said.

“In this situation, we are not only afraid for the fate of our colleagues. We just do not understand how to continue to do our job,” it added, raising concerns about “a rapid decline in the level of research” if employees are too afraid to do their work. 

Such cases are dissuading young Russian scientists from staying in the field, the letter said, and they could bring Russian science to a brink it last faced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was characterized by a massive brain drain from the country. “Domestic science may not endure the second such blow,” the letter added. 

The letter also mentioned the controversial case of another Russian scientist, Dmitry Kolker, who was arrested last year on suspicion of treason even though he suffered from an advanced form of cancer. He was flown to Moscow for detention and died several days later. 

The Kremlin said it was aware of the letter in defense of the academics, but spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was a matter for Russian special services, the state media agency RIA reported. “This is a very serious accusation,” he said, according to the agency.

But the scientists are not the only patriots seemingly bedeviling the Kremlin.

A wave of the hypersonic missiles — which Russian President Vladimir Putin once boasted were all but unstoppable — were seemingly shot down by Ukraine this week. 

Kyiv claimed Tuesday that it had shot down six Russian Kinzhal missiles in a single night, a statement Moscow disputed.

Russia considered the air-launched ballistic missiles to be next-generation technology, and Putin praised them in a highly publicized speech in early 2018, when he said they are “invulnerable” to existing missile and air defense systems, which “simply cannot catch up with them.”

The apparent vulnerability of the missiles “is likely a surprise and an embarrassment for Russia,” the British Defense Ministry said in its daily dispatch Wednesday. 

The Russian Defense Ministry said one of its Kinzhal missiles “struck and completely destroyed” a U.S.-built Patriot surface-to-air missile defense system in Kyiv on Tuesday, citing what it called “reliable data.” But two U.S. officials confirmed that the Patriot battery had incurred some damage but was still operational.