Alexander Shiplyuk, director of the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (ITAM) in Siberia, was quietly arrested last August and held without charges ever since.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Shiplyuk and two of his colleagues have been accused of treason for giving hypersonic missile technology to China.
Shiplyuk, 56, is an associate member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a noted authority on several disciplines of aerophysics, including hypersonic flight. Until his arrest, he was the head of a hypersonic technologies laboratory at ITAM. His work has been published internationally, including in the United States.
“I was shocked and horrified to see him arrested. He was very well respected in his field,” University of Maryland aerospace engineering professor Stuart Laurence, who met with Shiplyuk on two occasions, told Reuters.
Shocked as he might have been, Laurence found it entirely plausible that Shiplyuk would be involved with secret military research.
“Given the climate that we’re in, hypersonics are considered a key technology by many countries. There was a lot of impetus to work on more restricted research directly applicable to weapons,” the American professor noted.
Shiplyuk was reportedly arrested in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in August, and has been held at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison since then. His arrest followed that of 76-year-old Anatoly Maslov, an ITAM physicist of high repute whose work also pertained to hypersonic aircraft. Maslov was arrested in Novosibirsk in late June.
A third member of the ITAM staff, researcher Valery Zvegintsev, was detained in April. Zvegintsev founded the hypersonic lab that Shiplyuk headed up. His arrest was kept secret until a group of ITAM scientists published an open letter defending their three colleagues and lamenting the damage to scientific research caused by their arrests.
“Any article or report can lead to accusations of treason,” the letter said. “The work we’re awarded for and lauded as examples for today becomes grounds for criminal prosecution tomorrow. In these circumstances, it’s simply impossible for our institute to work.”
“All of them are known for their brilliant scientific results. Their competencies and professional reputation allowed them to find a highly paid and prestigious job abroad, but they did not leave their homeland, devoting their lives to serving Russian science,” the letter said of the three imprisoned scientists.
After the letter from the scientists piqued public and academic interest in the fates of the three men, Russian state media revealed Zvegintsev was accused of treason for revealing sensitive information in an article he wrote for an Iranian publication, even though the article in question passed two state security reviews.
Shiplyuk and Maslov are also accused of treason, but the cases against them are even murkier – and likely to remain that way, since treason trials in Russia are conducted behind closed doors. According to Reuters’ sources, Shiplyuk was arrested because he disseminated classified material at a scientific conference in China in 2017. Shiplyuk insists all of the information he presented at the conference was easily accessible online.
The China connection in the Shiplyuk and Maslov cases could be awkward, because Chinese dictator Xi Jinping announced plans to intensify energy and investment cooperation with Russia on Wednesday.
Xi said China wants to “strengthen and deepen” ties with Russia, an international pariah with few outspoken allies since the brutal invasion of Ukraine, and “increase the level of cooperation in the trade-economic and investment spheres.”
Speaking at a meeting in Beijing with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Xi said his goal was to “enrich the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia on an ongoing basis.”
The Russian Ministry of Economic Development signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on Wednesday to increase trade between the two countries, and facilitate cooperation between Russian and Chinese businesses on “educational, healthcare, financial, transport, construction, technical, and other services.”
Technical cooperation would seem to include hypersonic research, but Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is extremely proud of Russia’s hypersonic missiles, touting them as unstoppable superweapons that can neutralize American missile defenses and threaten U.S. carrier battle groups.
Russia and Ukraine have given conflicting accounts of whether hypersonic missiles have been used in the Ukraine war, and whether the Ukrainian military was able to intercept any of them.
China also touts its hypersonic technology, and the Pentagon has reason to believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can deploy functional hypersonic weapons. In August 2021, the Biden administration was caught by surprise when China successfully tested a nuclear-capable low-orbit hypersonic missile.
On Tuesday, a Chinese science journal claimed computer simulations showed China’s hypersonic missiles could evade U.S. defenses and destroy an entire carrier battle group. The U.S. fleet in the simulation was wiped out in every one of the 20 scenarios the Chinese scientists ran.
In March, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimated that China is actually ahead of Russia in hypersonic weapons deployment, even though Putin boasts about the missiles more than Xi does.
DIA warned that China has “dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities through intense, focused investment, development, testing and deployments.”
The U.S. military, on the other hand, has yet to announce an operational hypersonic weapon.
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