Russia accuses Arctic scientist of treason, passing secrets to China

Valery Mitko is president of the Arctic Academy of Sciences.

Valery Mitko speaks at a 2014 forum on sustainable development in the Arctic. Mitko, who is president of the Russian Arctic Academy of Sciences, is accused by authorities of treason. (Arctic Academy of Sciences)

MOSCOW — State prosecutors have charged a prominent Russian scientist with treason after accusing him of passing state secrets to China, his lawyer said on Monday, adding that his client could serve up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Valery Mitko, president of the Arctic Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, has been under house arrest since authorities charged him with high treason in February.

Ivan Pavlov, his lawyer, said the 78-year-old academic travelled to China twice a year to speak as a guest lecturer and denied handing state secrets to the Chinese authorities.

Mitko did travel to China with documents for his lectures, but these contained academic and open source information only, Pavlov said.

“There were no state secrets in there at all. We consider these accusations to be absurd,” Pavlov said, saying he hoped the case would be dismissed before trial.

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A source told the Interfax news agency that Mitko has been accused of having given China information pertaining to methods used to detect submarines.

Mitko is also a former navy captain and served in the Pacific Fleet, according to an association of Russian navy veterans.

A number of Russian scientists have been arrested and charged with treason in recent years for allegedly handing sensitive material to foreigners. Critics of the Kremlin say the arrests often stem from unfounded paranoia.

Russia is an important player in the Arctic and has been building up its military presence there as climate change has opened up the resource-rich region.

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China, which has called itself a “near-Arctic state”, is seeking better access to the region and faster trade through the Northern Sea Route. It has also invested more in Arctic research.

Despite the misgivings of some nationalist politicians, Russia has increasingly prioritized closer ties with China, especially since its relations with the West collapsed in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth.