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In Russia, hypersonic rivalry feeds suspicions and arrests

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Science  10 Jan 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6474, pp. 136
DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6474.136

Researchers face treason charges for sharing research.

As the hypersonic arms race escalates, international collaborations are crumbling—sometimes with dire consequences for researchers. Almost 10 years ago, Russian aerospace engineer Victor Kudryavtsev collaborated with Europe on Transhyberian, a €565,000 hypersonic project funded largely by the European Union. But in the summer of 2018, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested him and, several months later, a colleague, physicist Roman Kovalev. Both have been charged with high treason for allegedly leaking hypersonic secrets to “a NATO research center.” If found guilty, they each face up to 20 years in prison.

The charges dismay observers, who point out that a military review panel had approved the release of Russia's contribution to Transhyberian. (The project's coordinating institution, the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium, is affiliated with NATO but does no classified research.) FSB's decision to classify the work came 5 years after the EU project ended. The “absolutely illicit retroactive approach … increases the vulnerability” of Russian scientists working in areas that might have military or other sensitive applications, says Boris Altshuler, a theoretical physicist and human rights activist at the Russian Academy of Sciences's P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute.


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Taking part in international hypersonic research landed Russian engineer Victor Kudryavtsev in prison.

PHOTO: NATALIYA DEMINA/TRV-SCIENCE

Launched in June 2011, the 2-year project examined a phenomenon that bedevils spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere. At hypersonic speeds, laminar air flow over a surface can suddenly turn turbulent, creating intense temperature spikes on the vehicle's surface. To study those heat fluctuations, the Transhyberian team performed wind tunnel experiments and computer simulations at the Belgian institute, the German Aerospace Center, and three Russian institutions—including the Central Research Institute of Machine Building, or TsNIIMash, a spacecraft and missile design center in Korolyov where both arrested scientists work. The research showed that locally heating or cooling the surface could help control the temperature spikes—a finding that could improve the design of hypersonic aircraft.

As project coordinator for TsNIIMash, Kudryavtsev transmitted research findings to the foreign partners. The reports were approved by the military's Federal Service for Technical and Export Control, says Kudryavtsev's attorney, Ivan Pavlov, a prominent human rights lawyer. Herman Deconinck, who handles the von Karman Institute's foreign relations, notes that all references in the Russian reports had been published in the open literature.

The project aimed to strengthen collaboration between Russia and the European Union in hypersonics, Deconinck says. But the amity faded in 2014 after Europe condemned Russia's invasion of Crimea. Relations cooled further in 2018, when Western analysts greeted Russian claims about the country's hypersonic weapons skeptically, citing test failures. Russia then classified much of its hypersonic research, and Kudryavtsev was hauled off to Moscow's Lefortovo Prison.

In November 2018, he was denied prison visits after rejecting a plea bargain requiring him to admit guilt and “frame a colleague,” Pavlov says. The European Court of Human Rights weighed in in April 2019, ordering Russia to provide medical treatment for Kudryavtsev, who is 76 and ailing. He was released from prison on 27 September 2019 after being diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, says his son, Yaroslav Kudryavtsev, a polymer scientist. “They just put him outside with all his things.” Victor Kudryavtsev was told not to leave the Moscow region before his trial.

“Mentally Victor is strong, not cooperating with the investigators,” his son says. After failing to squeeze a confession out of Victor Kudryavtsev, FSB arrested Kovalev in June. He has also reportedly refused to plead guilty or incriminate colleagues and is confined in Lefortovo. In July 2019, the security service arrested a third TsNIIMash scientist, Sergey Meshcheryakov, who had participated in a different international project. He, too, is accused of high treason and is under home detention after suffering a heart attack following his arrest. Authorities have not signaled when the three researchers will face trial.

Voices outside Russia need to speak up, Altshuler says. “Strong reaction in the West is an effective practical instrument to raise the level of decision-making on the case,” he says. The Committee of Concerned Scientists, a human rights nonprofit, has worked to draw attention to the scientists' plight. And on 29 October 2019, the von Karman Institute declared it “could not find any trace of disclosing secret information” by Kudryavtsev's team. It asked the European Commission to pursue the matter with Russia.

The support is welcome, Yaroslav Kudryavtsev says. The von Karman Institute's “simple public declaration,” he says, could persuade many academics to take a stand.

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