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OPINION

Russia’s Potemkin “treason” industry: despite record convictions, the Kremlin’s intelligence services are not catching actual spies

In 2023, Russia saw an unprecedented surge in guilty verdicts for state treason — a staggering 39, 2.5 times more than in 2022. At the same time, nearly a hundred new cases were initiated, meaning that the years 2024 and 2025 hold the potential to break records once again. The vast majority of these cases target scientists, journalists, and ordinary professionals, while intelligence agencies seem to overlook “traitors” within the bureaucratic and military sectors, where state secrets are actually safeguarded. As lawyer Ivan Pavlov explains for The Insider, for the Kremlin, public relations often takes precedence over national security when it comes to crimes committed by high ranking officials.

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At first glance, the rising number of arrests for treason in Russia may seem logical. With the country at war, concerns about state security take precedence. In any conflict, there are bound to be enemies, both internal and external. While external adversaries are obvious, there's a specific provision for internal threats — the state treason statute. This is how traitors within Russian intelligence ranks, army generals collaborating with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, defense sector managers leaking state secrets to foreign agencies, or government ministers betraying their country, are meant to be identified.

However, among those convicted as “traitors” last year, such high-profile figures were notably absent. It's a challenge to recall the last time a senior government official or military officer was tried for treason in Russia without resorting to Wikipedia.

What comes to mind is the case of General Oleg Kalugin, who emigrated to the United States in 1995 after stepping down from his post. In 2001, Kalugin testified against former U.S. Army colonel George Trofimoff, confirming the American citizen’s role as a Soviet intelligence agent. In 2002, a Russian court sentenced Kalugin in absentia to 15 years in prison under the state treason statute. Sergei Skripal's case is also worth mentioning; he was convicted in 2006 and later exchanged. With thorough research, perhaps a few more similar cases could be uncovered. However, such occurrences are exceedingly rare in modern Russia.

But why? Has Putin really developed some unparalleled method of ideological indoctrination that has eliminated traitors from the highest levels of the country's leadership — both civilian and military? Even the Bolsheviks, with their pervasive propaganda, couldn't achieve such results. So why aren't we seeing such cases now?

There are two reasons for this. To understand the first, let's examine the recent arrest of Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov. Officially, he was detained on suspicion of bribery, which, of course, surprised no one: Ivanov had been under investigation for corruption for years and was found to own luxury real estate worth billions of rubles, acquired through kickbacks from Ministry of Defense contractors.

What's striking is the exact timing of his arrest. The Kremlin had been aware of Ivanov’s schemes since at least 2019, and more likely much earlier, yet the corrupt officer faced no charges until recently. Why have they gone after him now? Why not at the beginning of the war? Why not in 2019?

The probable reason is that bribery is not the only crime in question. Shortly after Ivanov’s arrest, certain media outlets suggested that he was being investigated for state treason. While I'm generally cautious about putting too much faith in anonymous leaks, there is at least some indirect confirmation in this case. Ivanov is being investigated by the FSB's Department of Military Counterintelligence, which typically doesn't handle economic crimes, but instead specializes in espionage and treason. Still, the official reason for the arrest was corruption.

Ivanov had held the position of Deputy Minister of Defense since 2016. He is a long time member of Shoigu's team, with numerous government awards to his name. He had overseen all major construction projects of the Ministry of Defense, was a key figure in the country's leadership hierarchy, and held a civilian rank that is equivalent to that of a four-star general.

He was also appointed by Vladimir Putin himself, and if Putin were to acknowledge that one of the highest-ranking officials in the Ministry of Defense had betrayed the country during wartime, it would severely damage the president’s image. A leader who boasts of his intelligence service background cannot afford such a glaring lapse in personnel selection. Therefore, Ivanov will only be charged with treason if Kremlin authorities can find a way to avoid a media disaster — likely by concocting a version of events that shields the top leadership from scrutiny. If they can’t pull off a stunt like that, then it's more convenient to simply put Shoigu's deputy behind bars for bribery. The sentences for such crimes are substantial, and the reputational damage to the regime would be considerably less: “The battleship may have sunk, but the fleet remains unscathed!”

I suspect this case is not unique. We hear little about high-ranking state traitors simply because it is not in the regime's interest to prosecute them under this charge. As they used to say in the Soviet Union, “they're being punished, but not for what they did.” Even when it comes to individuals wielding vast authority and having access to state secrets — those capable of causing real harm to Russia’s national security — a charge under the state treason statute isn't advantageous for the authorities, as each guilty verdict would indirectly implicate the superiors who had appointed the traitors in the first place. Here, PR considerations take precedence over national security — and over Russian law.

Here, PR considerations take precedence over national security — and over Russian law

Another reason lies in the motivation of those enforcing the law. Exposing a case of state treason is a remarkable achievement for any intelligence officer, often considered the pinnacle of their career. However, to ensure that one’s work actually leads to advancement, it is necessary to avoid putting the country’s political leadership in an uncomfortable position by investigating crimes at the highest levels. Thus, investigators seeking the system’s favor have an incentive to pursue less powerful targets to “expose” as traitors.

Consider the well-known “Sochi case,” in which a local bakery saleswoman named Oksana Sevastidi became a defendant. In 2008, just before the start of Russia’s five-day war with Georgia, a train carrying military equipment passed through her city. Sevastidi sent an SMS to her friend in Georgia about what she saw. Of course, it never occurred to her that this could be secret military information — after all, the train was passing by in broad daylight, clearly visible to the entire city.

Yet in 2015, Sevastidi was arrested on charges of state treason and sentenced to seven years in prison. Several other people received similar sentences for similar actions, a fact that, in my view, further confirms the widely known nature of this information. Everyone saw the train with the equipment.

This fact eventually had to be acknowledged by Vladimir Putin himself, who found himself in an awkward position during a press conference when asked about Oksana Sevastidi. How could it be that the security of a nuclear superpower is threatened by an SMS sent by a saleswoman from Sochi? What kind of state secret is this if it can be seen and disclosed by any random passerby?

That’s how we managed to secure pardons for Sevastidi and two others. But unfortunately, such cases — absurd and clearly fabricated — haven't disappeared.

This is evident in a series of “state treason” cases in which Russian scientists became victims: Vladimir Lapygin, Viktor Kudryavtsev, Valery Mitko, Anatoly Maslov, Valery Golubkin, Anatoly Gubanov, and Dmitry Kolker (who died in pretrial detention), to name but a few. Similar cases are built on roughly the same principle: a scientist participating in an international project approved by all government agencies sends scientific documentation to project partners. All of this occurs within the framework of institute-established procedures, with the approval of all necessary commissions — including the security commission — which finds no state secrets in the documentation.

And then, years later, the FSB accuses the scientist of sending materials containing classified information, alleging state treason by leaking state secrets to foreigners. Moreover, the accusations are directed at the scientist who acted in full compliance with the commission's decision, rather than the commission members themselves, who typically include security service officers and other personnel responsible for safeguarding state secrets.

The Russian state derives no benefit from the prosecution of the brightest minds of Russian science, whose work underpins not only our understanding of the universe's laws but also the country's defense capability. If the FSB genuinely aimed to protect the state's security, they could have intervened much earlier — during the verification and approval stage of these documents by the security commission — and warned the scientist not to send such information abroad. Of course, the authorities understand perfectly well that none of the convicted scientists are actual traitors or spies.

But the FSB is not tasked with defending the security of the Russian state. The crackdown on “traitors,” “spies,” and other entities — obsessions of the Russian authorities — is a response by the security services to give the country’s leadership what it wants, rather than what is in the national interest. There is a demand from the top to uncover traitors; therefore, traitors must be found (or, more often than not, appointed). And the executors of this seemingly pointless task, of course, will be rewarded. In such a situation, it's much easier to imprison random individuals on fabricated charges than to engage in real work.

The surge in state treason cases that has been seen in Russia since the start of the war is not driven by the goal of safeguarding national security. Instead, it is driven by the political leadership's demand to root out internal enemies.

The surge in state treason cases that has been seen in Russia since the start of the war is not driven by the goal of safeguarding national security

Among the accused, one will hardly find any high-ranking officials or military servicemen who have sold their souls to the devil. Instead, one will find electricians, ballerinas, students, retirees, and even schoolchildren. Some are imprisoned for tiny donations to Ukrainian charities — usually not more than a few dollars. Others are deemed guilty of “defecting to the enemy's side” simply based on their correspondence with some Ukrainian Telegram bot — even if they took no real action toward this supposed “defection.” And some are taken in just for their words, which are labeled as incitement to treason.

These cases are straightforward and comprehensible. They do not require any particular effort from law enforcement, pose no threat to officers’ safety, carry no risk of creating an unpleasant political incident, and still offer ample material for writing up impressive reports sure to please a national leadership that is always demanding new crackdowns.

In these cases, sloppy Chekists find the answer to an old Russian question: “How can we have everything without facing consequences?” The answer: a magical box that turns shattered human lives into new stars on our epaulettes.

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