Intelligence: Greedy and Unlucky


December 24, 2020: At the end of 2020 Russia arrested Anatoly Gubanov and ordered him held until February while more evidence is collected. Gubanov is a scientist working on hydrogen-powered hypersonic aircraft. He was accused of turning over secret documents on his work while attending conferences in foreign countries. Hypersonic aircraft are considered a key military technology, currently being used in the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, which recently flew at speeds of over 7,000 kilometers an hour during test flights. This arrest was not unique.

Earlier in the year another scientist, Valery Mitko, was arrested on similar espionage charges and accused of turning over secret information while on a trip to China. A search of Mitkos’ home and workplace found more evidence of working for China, perhaps as far back as 2017. Mitko was a trusted member of the Russian research community and former naval officer. He had been a visiting professor at the Chinese Dalian Maritime University since 2016. If convicted, both men face 20 years in prison for treason. Such an outcome would be a significant embarrassment for the Russian intelligence community as well as another setback for academic cooperation between China and Russia. It is unclear if Gubanov was providing secret information to China and the delay in further court proceedings may be to determine who was getting the hydrogen-powered propulsion technology. China is not the only foreign power interested in that sort of thing.

This form of espionage is not a new development and has been going on since the 1990s as China took advantage of the economic collapse that triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In many cases Russia was willing to sell military tech and the most advanced Russian equipment to China just to keep key defense industries in business. China was not content to just be a major customer; they wanted technical details as well as manufacturing technology so China could produce the Russian weapons themselves. After 2000 a new government in Russian, led by several former KGB officers, sought to halt the Chinese plundering of Russian military tech. Threats were made and compromises offered. Several times Russia thought it had made deals with the Chinese, but each time it was discovered that Chinese industrial espionage was continuing.

By 2012 Russia was giving a lot of publicity to the prosecution of Russians caught spying for China. For example, in that year, a Russian court sentenced two university teachers to 12 years in prison each for selling SLBM (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) secrets to China. The crime was committed in 2009 and the two received $7,000 for the information on the Bulava missile they gave to the Chinese. This was not an isolated incident. Earlier in 2012 the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) arrested a Russian engineer who was also working on the Bulava SLBM. The accused engineer was charged with selling secrets to a foreign intelligence service. It wasn’t just China, in 2012 a Russian court convicted a Russian space engineer for selling missile test data to the CIA. But it's the Chinese who appear to be most active in Russia. This was embarrassing because Russia was trying to portray NATO and the Americans as the main threat to Russia with China allegedly being a trusted and valuable ally and customer for Russian weapons.

The foreign spy situation has been bad but more arrests and prosecutions have either reduced espionage or forced spies to proceed more carefully. In 2008, 149 foreign spies were arrested. Of those, 48 were officials of foreign intelligence agencies. Strictly speaking, these are not spies, but the people who sought out locals suitable for recruiting as spies. Of these spies, 76 were non-Russians living in Russia and 25 were Russians. Six of those arrested for spying were working for Georgia and one was a Russian citizen from Syria who was working with Islamic radicals in the Caucasus. Even then, China had a major espionage effort going in Russia and a few Chinese operatives are caught every year. None of the foreign spy agencies demonstrated any interest  in shutting down their espionage operations in Russia. This included China, which continues to insist that it has forbidden its foreign intelligence agencies to operate against Russia. By 2011 only 41 spies were arrested in Russia. Such arrests have continued to decline. China always blames cases like Mitko as the work of “rogue elements” or denies any official involvement at all.

Some of the spies were simply people the Russian government wanted to shut up and take out of circulation. Charging them with espionage is an old trick from the Soviet period and even earlier, as the Czarist secret police used the same technique. In practice, Russia is doing much more spying on others and many more Russian spies are caught overseas each year. But Russia, using a proven Cold War era technique, attempts to deflect criticism of its own espionage activities by emphasizing the real or imagined spying activity in Russia. Unfortunately, the continued Chinese efforts are very real and Russia is treating such efforts involving Russians as treason by Russians who should know better. While Gubanov and Mitko were caught, counterintelligence agencies know of many Russian scientists who have retired and left Russia to live quite well elsewhere. Those that get caught seemed to be unlucky or simply greedy and sloppy.


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