Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Russia accuses leading Arctic researcher of spying for China

Moscow(CNN) Russia has accused one of its leading Arctic researchers of treason, alleging that he gave sensitive information to China. This is the latest in a string of cases where high-profile Russian scientists have found themselves in a standoff with the security services over suspected foreign contacts.

Investigators allege that Valery Mitko, President of Arctic Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, gave a document containing state secrets to Chinese intelligence in early 2018 at China's Dalian Maritime University, where he was a visiting professor, his lawyer Ivan Pavlov told CNN.

According to Pavlov, the document in question dealt with hydroacoustics,the study of sound in water commonly applied in underwater navigation, communications and monitoring submarine activity, among other things.

Mitko, 78, denies any wrongdoing. His lawyer maintains that all information the scientist brought from Russia to China for his lectures was openly available. The press service of the Federal Security Service did not respond to a request for comment.

Mitko was charged with state treason and put under house arrest in February this year but the details of his case have only emerged now, after Pavlov's defense team Komanda29, which specializes in state security and espionage cases, picked it up in order to draw public attention.

Watchers of Russia-China relations believe the spying allegations against an Arctic researcher could highlight a burgeoning competition between the two countries in the region. Moscow and Beijing have built a strategic partnership in the Arctic amid rising tensions with the West, but Russia has been careful about any military cooperation in that area, said Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"China really shows that it has military ambition by the way its intelligence are looking into these things," Gabuev said. "Subs operate in neutral waters and we are probably seeing a new front of Chinese global navy development. And subs that could operate in the Arctic are part of that."

Several Russian academics have been accused or convicted of passing state secrets to foreign governments in recent years. In 2018, a Moscow court charged Viktor Kudryavtsev, an aerospace engineer, with treason for allegedly sharing a report that contained information about Russian hypersonic weapons with a Belgian institute following a joint research program, state-run agency TASS reported.

Kudryavtsev, who is in his late 70s, spent over a year in a detention center but was moved to house arrest due to frail health. His case is still in pre-trial investigation. Two other employees of the same institute where Kudryavtsev worked have since been arrested on state treason charges, according to state-run news agency TASS.

Another space researcher, 79-year-old Vladimir Lapygin, was released from prison last week on early parole, following a 2016 conviction for passing on technical details about Russian spacecraft to China, according to TASS.

All of the scientists have denied wrongdoing, saying that the information they are accused of sharing was not classified.

Pavlov, the lawyer, has suggested that the cases are the products of paranoia within the Russian special services. Court statistics show that the total number of state security-related cases skyrocketed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which bred "militaristic sentiments" within law enforcement, he says.

According to the data published by Russia's Supreme Court, from 2009 to 2013 a total of 25 people were convicted on state treason charges, and in 2014 alone there were 15 convictions. Between 2014 and 2019, 51 people were convicted of state treason.

"There is a risk group of people who possess some sensitive information or gather such information, and first and foremost these are scientists but could be journalists or civil activists, too," the lawyer adds. "[The special services] monitor who has international ties and foreign contacts, so a little red light blinks once they go abroad... and the mentality of our agents says if a scientist goes abroad, he of course goes there to sell secrets."

Since China proclaimed itself "a near-Arctic state," it has significantly stepped up efforts to increase its presence there, often with Russia's help and bypassing other coastal states that are allied with the US and NATO. Russia, on the other hand, has made a priority of revamping its regions within the Arctic circle, which were largely abandoned after the collapse of the USSR.

In March, President Vladimir Putin unveiled an ambitious Arctic 2035 plan in hopes to bring jobs back into the region, by developing huge energy projects that China heavily invested in, and Russia is looking to export oil and gas as the Northern Sea Route becomes increasingly free of ice.