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Another septuagenarian spy! Russia opens its latest treason case against an elderly scientist. This time, an Arctic specialist is accused of selling secrets to China.

Source: Meduza
Interpress / PhotoXPress

Russia has opened another treason investigation, once again charging an elderly scientist. In St. Petersburg, federal agents say 78-year-old Arctic specialist Valery Mitko sold classified information about Russian submarines to Chinese intelligence. Mitko says he merely gave a lecture at a local university. Meduza examines the case against Mitko, who now faces up to 20 years in prison.

Around 7 a.m. on February 11, Valery Mitko was surprised to hear someone knocking outside. That morning, the 78-year-old Arctic specialist was home with his wife, Tatyana, in their apartment, just outside St. Petersburg. When they opened the door, six people walked in: two witnesses and four Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. “They came inside early in the morning and didn’t leave until late in the evening. The whole time, none of them ate or drank a thing. Apparently, that’s considered normal for them,” Tatyana Mitko told Meduza.

The FSB agents announced that they’d opened a treason case against the scientist just a day earlier, and almost immediately they took him away for interrogation. The officers spent the rest of the time at the apartment seizing Mitko’s personal belongings: mostly electronics and documents, including even foreign-currency exchange receipts from trips abroad. “They took [everything] out in boxes,” says Tatyana Mitko.

The agents also questioned Mitko’s wife. She says everything was “friendly” and most of the questions concerned family relationships, but she nevertheless had to sign a non-disclosure agreement afterwards. 

That same day, categorically maintaining his own innocence, Valery Mitko was placed under house arrest. Federal agents argued that he was a flight risk and claimed that he might try to intimidate witnesses or destroy case materials. Investigators also warned that they hadn’t yet identified all suspects in the case. As a result, a local court also prohibited Mitko from speaking to journalists.

Russia typically locks up treason suspects in pretrial detention, but this didn’t happen with Valery Mitko. Tatyana guesses that the court decided to keep her husband at home because of both the coronavirus pandemic and the controversy that’s plagued the jailing of another elderly scientist: 76-year-old Viktor Kudryavtsev, who’s suspected of passing confidential data from a state research center to a group of his Belgian colleagues via email. In September 2019, Kudryavtsev (who also maintains his innocence) was transferred from jail to house arrest after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Officials haven’t dropped the case against Kudryavtsev, however, and Valery Mitko’s family doesn’t expect his investigation to end, either. “Honestly, I don’t anticipate anything good from this case,” Tatyana told Meduza.

An Arctic specialist and a statist

Valery Mitko was born in Chernihiv (modern-day northern Ukraine) on July 12, 1941, immediately after the USSR’s entry into World War II. His father, who worked in law enforcement, fought as a partisan against the Nazis and was seriously wounded in battle, but continued to fight until the end of the war in May 1945.

Mitko left his hometown at the age of 17, moving to Leningrad, where he later graduated from the Naval College of Radio Electronics. He married Tatyana, who is five years his junior, when she turned 18. After his training was complete, Mitko served as the head of a radio technical service aboard a rescue ship in the USSR’s Pacific Fleet. In 1966, he was made the head of the same service in a nuclear submarine, which brought him to the Arctic for the first time in his life. Mitko describes the northern natural landscape as “dreamlike,” and he’s captured this scenery in dozens of paintings created during his expeditions. After leaving the military with a captain’s rank, Mitko devoted most of his scientific endeavors to the Arctic.

In recent years, Mitko’s research has focused on geopolitical challenges in the Arctic and other northern regions, applied aspects of hydrophysics, and ocean monitoring systems. He is a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, and he’s taught at Russia’s Naval Academy and electrotechnical and hydrometeorological universities in St. Petersburg. Mitko also serves on the public council of the Federation Council’s committee on Northern Affairs and he heads the Arctic Academy of Sciences, which he co-founded in 2003.

In several of his own studies (some of which Meduza has obtained), Mitko warns that Russia risks lagging behind the West, if it fails to devote more attention to the Arctic. He has stressed the north’s great potential and advocated the adoption of the so-called “Arctic Doctrine” to guide the region’s necessary development. Back in 2003, Mitko pitched the project to Russia’s Security Council, but the initiative went nowhere. In these papers, he also criticizes mining companies from around the world (Rosneft manages these projects in Russia) for their indifference to the Arctic’s environment when developing different production fields. His last paper, published in 2019, is titled “The Evolution of the Geopolitical Factors That Determine Russia’s Arctic Mission.”

At the same time, Mitko’s wife says he never took any special interest in politics and generally supports the state in its endeavors. Before this treason investigation, Valery Mitko never had any conflict with Russia’s authorities.

Since 2016, Mitko has taught as a visiting professor at the Dalian Maritime University in China. His wife says he traveled to China twice a year to give lectures on hydrophysics and even advocated cooperation in the Arctic between Moscow and Beijing. Ivan Pavlov, Mikto’s defense attorney from the “Team 29” human rights center, says it was these trips abroad that led to the treason case.

The secret suitcase document

According to state investigators (as explained in the house arrest paperwork, which Meduza has obtained), Valery Mitko began collaborating with Chinese intelligence at least three years ago. Officials say he agreed to collect classified information “of a military nature.” In particular, the FSB claims that Chinese agents recruited Mitko to gather intelligence about Russian submarines (what they can do and how they can be detected) in exchange for material compensation (though the amount of money isn’t specified in the arrest documents obtained by Meduza). 

Valery Mitko at the Dalian Maritime University

The FSB says Mitko spent a year collecting this information, relying on his own experience in the Navy, as well as “other sources,” and allegedly transferred the data to Chinese intelligence on March 24, 2018, supposedly aware that he was harming Russia’s national security. 

Ivan Pavlov confirmed to Meduza that Mitko traveled to China in March 2018 to give one of his lectures at the Dalian Maritime University. According to the case materials, FSB agents secretly opened Mitko’s baggage at the airport before he departed for China. The officers photographed the documents inside his suitcase and then resealed the baggage to cover their tracks. Pavlov says he suspects that Mitko had already been under surveillance for several years at this point, precisely due to his contact with colleagues abroad. 

The FSB sent the copies for expert analysis, which found that one of the documents contained classified intelligence. Pavlov told Meduza that the document in question did in fact address the characteristics of different submarines, including methods used for their detection, but Mitko says he pulled the information from open sources and planned to cite it in his lectures.

“All we know is the document’s title and the document itself is with the investigators, who have refused to share it with us. Mr. Mitko says he got all this information from open sources and doesn’t remember the document’s exact contents. Our task is now to reconstruct it, stat by stat, to show that there was nothing classified here,” explains Pavlov, who says he cannot reveal the document’s title because of a nondisclosure agreement. 

Convenient treason cases

Tatyana Mitko says her husband suspects the treason investigation against him is part of a plot by the federal agents who initiated it to win promotions. Ivan Pavlov agrees and he told Meduza that the FSB would have arrested Mitko sooner after discovering the supposedly classified intelligence in his suitcase, if the agency had actually been concerned about Russian national security. 

“Cases like these aren’t exactly painstaking, backbreaking labor for the officers who open them. FSB agents monitor certain risk groups: scholars, journalists, human rights activists, and so on,” says Pavlov. “First, this is someone [Valery Mitko] who possesses or collects knowledge that’s particularly sensitive to the state. Second, this is someone with contacts abroad who works, for example, with his foreign colleagues. Whoever is responsible for these two areas will be watching very closely. The moment they can establish that any kind of information has been transmitted abroad, all they need to open a criminal case is expertise from ‘friendly’ specialists concluding that the transmitted information contains state secrets. It’s what you’d call a mere formality. Any expert in your pocket will find something classified, of course.”

Mitko’s lawyer warns that current practices in Russian law enforcement have made it possible to classify virtually anything as a state secret. Russia’s laws are written in such a way that the very list of classified information is itself a state secret. Without access to this classified intelligence, it’s impossible to know what is secret and what is public. Such ignorance, however, cannot save people from criminal prosecution. 

Tatyana Mitko says her husband did have minimal security clearance during his time in the Navy, when he was granted access to information marked “Secret,” but that clearance expired more than 15 years ago.

Speaking through his lawyer, Mitko denies not just that he collected secret information but also that he has any contacts with the intelligence community in China, where Russian investigators say he has “established social ties” and the experience of “long-term cooperation” with local agents. “It’s possible that someone in Mr. Mitko’s academic circle really worked in intelligence, but how is an ordinary person supposed to know that someone might be hiding their shoulder straps under a scholar’s robes?” asks Pavlov.

Facing 20 years behind bars

On June 5, a court extended Valery Mitko’s house arrest until October. He plans to challenge this ruling. Until then, Mitko is prohibited from stepping outside his home and even from speaking to his son, Arseny, who like his father graduated from the Naval College of Radio Electronics. Arseny Mitko now teaches at Russia’s State University of Aerospace Instrumentation and serves as a member of the presidium of the Arctic Academy of Science (which Valery Mitko co-founded). He’s been named as a witness in his father’s case and cannot discuss the investigation due to a gag order.

Marina Minina, Mitko’s research secretary, is also a witness in the case. She initially agreed to speak to Meduza but then backed out after consulting her lawyer. 

Russia’s Federal Security Service did not respond to either phone calls or an official request for comment from Meduza.

Ivan Pavlov says the case against Mitko fits a pattern of investigations against Russian scientists with foreign contacts. In 2019, for instance, Russia’s Science and Education Ministry distributed official instructions with strict recommendations regarding contact with foreign nationals, including guidelines that at least two Russian scientists should be present whenever meeting with a colleague from another country. To convolute this socializing even further, the instructions stated that such contact outside work hours is possible only with a supervisor’s permission. Afterwards, Russian scholars needed to file a report with a summary of the conversation and copies of all participants’ passports. Russian scientists criticized the memo, arguing that it recalled the draconian restrictions in place on academia during the Soviet era. As a result, the ministry’s new head, Valery Falkov, revoked the order in early 2020.

Valery Mitko will celebrate his 79th birthday on July 12 under house arrest. He has serious heart problems and a registered disability (Meduza obtained a copy of his medical records), and he now faces between 12 and 20 years in prison. Mitko’s wife says he’s held up well, so far. “He’s the kind of person who’s cool and collected and usually keeps everything to himself. He’s acting now like he always does.”

Story by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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