Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 78

As has been the case with the other spy trials the FSB has launched in recent years, accused spy Valentin Danilov and his lawyer remain largely in the dark as to the specifics of the charges against him. This circumstance, together with the dubious nature of the charges, has reportedly prompted some twenty well-established fellow scientists working in the Krasnoyarsk region to publish an open letter proclaiming his innocence (AP, Reuters, Russia TV, Itar-Tass, ORT, April 18).

If the FSB’s previous spy cases are any indication, however, the letter and the protests from Danilov’s colleagues will have little effect. Similar protests accompanied the arrests of Nikitin, Pasko and the others, but they remained imprisoned for months at a time–no small matter given the abject condition of Russia’s jails–as the FSB laboriously conducted its investigations. The trials were themselves also extended affairs, often characterized by prosecutorial abuses and questionable legal rulings on the part of the courts involved. And while Nikitin and Pasko were ultimately acquitted (and Pope pardoned), the experiences were harrowing enough for those involved that the FSB would probably be justified in claiming victory for itself. The long incarcerations and trials presumably sent the desired message to Russia’s defense specialists that incautious cooperation with foreign partners could prove hazardous to their health (see the Monitor, February 8; November 28, 2000).

What is most unusual about the Danilov case, however, is that the foreign partner involved is China. The previous cases of this sort had involved alleged efforts by Western countries or Japan (or South Korea, in the case of one Russian diplomat still facing treason charges) to acquire sensitive Russian defense information. It is this consideration which raises at least the possibility that the regional FSB office responsible for arresting Danilov may have been operating without Moscow’s full knowledge. Beijing’s initial reaction to Danilov’s arrest, meanwhile, has been muted. Not surprisingly, Chinese authorities have denied that Danilov was acting as a spy for the Chinese government. Beijing’s ambassador to Moscow, meanwhile, said that he knew little about the case and could therefore not comment on it. But he did suggest in more general terms that the Chinese had received enough know-how from Russia through open sources that there was no need to acquire further information by spying (Izvestia, April 21).

Indeed, Russian-Chinese cooperation in the defense sphere has expanded significantly in recent years, and reports have appeared fairly regularly suggesting that a large number of Russian scientists and technicians are currently working in China. Relations between the two countries more generally, moreover, are currently friendly, and it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that Moscow would want to see a spy row involving China in the headlines during the runup to this summer’s expected summit meeting between Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The two leaders are expected at that time to sign a friendship treaty which will bring their countries even closer together. Nonetheless, officials hailing from Russia’s more eastern regions have sometimes been reluctant converts to this still relatively recent rapprochement with Beijing, and it is possible that sentiments of this sort played a role in Danilov’s detention. Western protests had little or no impact on Russia’s prosecutions of Nikitin and Pope, and, against this background, it will be interesting to see how China reacts to the Danilov arrest, and whether that reaction influences the conduct of Danilov’s case.