Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 2

An increasingly obvious campaign by Russia’s security services to chill contacts between Russian and Western defense experts resumed late last month with the opening of yet another closed-door trial of a Russian nuclear researcher. Igor Sutyagin, a 35-year-old defense analyst at Russia’s prestigious USA and Canada Institute, faces a possible 20-year jail sentence on treason charges. The precise terms of the indictment against Sutyagin remain unclear, but he is said by most reports to be accused of having passed classified information–possibly relating to Russian submarine technology–to the United States and Britain. Sutyagin was arrested in October of 1999 and has been incarcerated since then. On December 26 a Russian judge postponed the start of his hearing until January 9 (Reuters, AP, December 26; AFP, December 27, 2000).

In both the vagueness of the accusations and the secretiveness of the trial proceedings, Mr. Sutyagin’s case appears to be replicating those of several other Russian defense experts which have occurred over the past several years. Their number includes Aleksandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, each of whom had investigated the Russian navy’s handling of nuclear waste materials. A former Russian diplomat named Valentin Moiseev has likewise been accused of treason for allegedly passing secrets to the South Korean government. Most recently, the American businessman and former naval intelligence officer Edmond Pope was convicted of espionage for having allegedly procured secret information about a Russian torpedo (see the Monitor, November 28, 2000).

In all of these cases the defendants have been subjected to lengthy and difficult incarcerations. All of the charges have been poorly substantiated (or, according to some accounts, fabricated) by Russian authorities, and the trials themselves have been riddled with questionable proceedings and apparently biased rulings. Ultimately Nikitin and Pasko were exonerated by Russian courts, but only after lengthy ordeals which appeared to highlight more than anything else the inordinate political power which Russia’s security services now wield anew. Pasko, moreover, faces an unexpected retrial which could reverse his earlier acquittal. The manner in which these cases have been conducted has generated loud condemnations from international human rights groups. The trials have also added to fears that President Vladimir Putin, himself a former intelligence officer, is behind the increased heavy-handedness of Russia’s security services and the government’s apparent determination to chill contacts between Russian defense experts and their Western counterparts. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Nikitin, Pasko and Sutyagin have all worked closely with non-Russian organizations.

It seems likely that Sutyagin’s case could now draw the same type of attention which international human rights groups earlier gave the Nikitin and Pasko cases. A group of Canadian scholars from York and Carleton Universities is already reported to have launched an international appeal for Sutyagin’s release. They are said to be shocked by his arrest and the treason charges lodged against him. They are also reportedly outraged by the fact that the case initially appeared to have focused on work Sutyagin did for a study of civil-military relations funded by the Canadian Defense Ministry and run through the two universities. Those involved in the project have insisted that it involved no classified materials and have pointed out that the civil-military relations project was also sponsored in part by Russia’s own Defense and Foreign Ministries (Ottawa Citizen, December 27, 2000).

While it is impossible to say with any certitude, Russian prosecutors may have dropped their suspicions relative to the civil-military project and may be focusing their attention instead on what Russian sources say are allegations that Sutyagin passed secrets about Russian nuclear submarines to the United States and Britain. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev suggested last month that FSB investigators might be looking in particular at Sutyagin’s contacts with Joshua Handler, an American nuclear weapons expert. Patrushev claimed in a Russian newspaper interview that Sutyagin had supplied Handler with “secret information on the Russian armed forces” and that Handler had passed this information to the U.S. intelligence service (Komsomolskaya pravda, December 20, 2000; Washington Post, December 27, 2000).

Handler, a Princeton graduate who had worked as a guest researcher at the USA and Canada Institute, has insisted that he worked only with open sources and has called Patrushev’s allegations “absurd.” He has also joined other human rights watchers in condemning the “spy mania and paranoia [that is] being encouraged by the FSB.” He has likewise said that his case is but the latest in which “Americans living and working in Russia are being harassed while pursuing perfectly normal activities by any civilized standard” (Washington Post, December 27, 2000). Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy head of the USA and Canada Institute, has sounded the same alarm with regard to the charges against Sutyagin. He said that the case had sent a chill through Russia’s academic community, especially among scientists who worked with colleagues from the West. “We are afraid that this case may not have been raised only against Sutyagin,” Kremeniuk said, “but against all Russian researchers” (Reuters, December 26, 2000).