Mechanism of Organised Espionage: In 2023, the FSB accused more than 100 people of treason

About 100 cases of treason were pending in Russian courts in 2023, and a similar number were filed during the year. This is roughly equivalent to the scale of prosecutions brought under this article over the 22 years, from 1997 to 2018. Such a qualitative leap was achieved both as a result of the 'stretching' of the concept of treason in the legislation, where it became increasingly vague and broad, and as a result of the expanding practice of provocations by intelligence officers against potential victims. At the same time, cases of treason are classified, and the practice of legal proceedings indicates that in case of cooperation, admission of guilt, the use of appointed lawyers, and the absence of public information about the case, defendants may receive shorter sentences, while in high-profile cases, the punishment appears demonstratively harsh. It follows that the logic of prosecuting treason cases is subordinated to the task of internal accountability — a plan to catch 'spies' and 'defectors' that has grown by leaps and bounds in times of war. As a result, the scale of the ‘spymania’ campaign becomes a matter of 'appetite for suspicion' and departmental bargaining. The former tends to grow, leading to an increase in the corresponding 'planned' indicators; the latter is aimed at making the task of satisfying the growing 'appetite for suspicion' as easy as possible. This mechanics of official spying is clearly demonstrated in the 'hunt for traitors' launched against scientists involved in hypersonics.

Gross figures

The human rights project specialising in cases of treason, espionage, and extremism, 'First Department' (formerly ‘Team 29' until 2021), calculated that in 2023, 70 cases of treason were filed in the courts of first instance: 63 under Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ('Treason') and 7 under the new Article 275.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ('Confidential cooperation with a foreign state, international or foreign organisation'). A total of at least 98 such cases were under consideration in the courts of first instance and in appellate courts last year, with 37 receiving sentences. According to the Judicial Department, in 2020 six sentences were passed under this article, in 2021 this rose to 14, and it increased to 16 in 2022.

Meanwhile, according to reports from the FSB itself, in 2023 alone, its officers detained 94 'traitors' , while human rights activists estimate that more than 100 criminal cases were initiated throughout the year under treason-related articles.

The project released its previous report on this topic in 2018 (currently only available as an abridged version via Meduza and Novaya Gazeta). Human rights activists have collected statistics on cases of treason since 1997, when the new Criminal Code of the Russian Federation came into force, and have come to the conclusion over the course of 22 years, about 100 people were convicted under the relevant articles (the data fluctuated in the range of 96 to 101).As we can see, the two wartime years yielded almost the same number of cases in the courts, while in 2023 alone, there were approximately the same number of prosecutions, some of which will come before the courts this year.

Lawyers from the 'First Department' believe that the FSB was able to achieve such results thanks to the increasingly widespread practice of provocations: intelligence officers become acquainted online with those who disagree with the war and correspond with them on behalf of Ukrainian citizens or Russians sympathetic to their cause. During these interactions, they aim to elicit specific responses, for example, that the person wants to help Ukraine, has transferred money to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine or asks them for help to buy a ticket to leave Russia. 'The threshold of sensitivity among law enforcement officers is rapidly decreasing, and actions such as forwarding Ukrainian news, transferring a few hundred rubles, or expressing a desire to leave the country are now recognised as treason', lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov notes.

'Rubber stamp' treason: how legislation was prepared for expanded use

As in other politically sensitive cases, the dramatic expansion of the application of the treason article was preceded by several stages of tightening and 'stretching'. 

In 2008, the possibility of considering these cases in a jury trial, where the probability of acquittal was much higher, was removed from the Criminal Procedure Code. In 2012, it took deputies just five minutes to vote for amendments that made the corresponding crime 'rubberised.' Previously, divulging state secrets could only be committed by a person who possessed this secret due to their official position. Now, the crime also included the 'disclosure of information constituting state secrets' known 'due to work, study, or in other cases,' as well as 'providing financial, material-technical, advisory, or other assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organisation, or their representatives in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation.' These 'other cases' and 'other assistance' created legal ambiguity and provided unlimited space for the investigator and the court's imagination, as well as pressure on the suspect.

Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova reassured the public that the number of cases under these articles is measured in units, and in its first year of operation, the new edition indeed remained dormant. However, the first outbreak of espionage took place after the five-day war with Georgia, according to the 2008 report (26 cases of treason were opened). The second was recorded after the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014. In 2013 human rights activists from 'Team 29' recorded only four convictions under this article, in 2014 this rose to 15, and there were 20 cases in both 2015-2016. After that, there was some decline.

The human rights activists were most concerned by the wording on the provision of financial and 'other assistance', which under the conditions of Russian law enforcement could include anything. However, according to 'First Department', the first case in which the article was used in its expanded version was the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza in April 2023. Thus, the amendments of 2012 were intended at that stage not so much to expand the range of persons to be prosecuted, but to facilitate the work of the investigation, prosecution and court regarding those whom it was decided to imprison.

In addition to changing the wording of the article, the list of information constituting state secrets was constantly expanded in accordance with the current context. For example, in May 2015, in the section 'Information revealing personnel losses in wartime,' an addition appeared: 'and in peacetime during special operations' (in response to the involvement of Russian troops in the war in Donbas). In September 2018, the list was supplemented with information 'on foreign intelligence officers involved in intelligence assignments who are not members of the staff' (in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Russian agents on 4 March 2018). A separate problem was that it was impossible to find out which military information was classified, as the order of the Ministry of Defense determining this is also classified.

Finally, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in July 2022, the Russian parliament enriched the Criminal Code with a new Article 275.1 ('Confidential cooperation with a foreign state, international or foreign organisation'). While the article on treason presupposed 'providing assistance to a foreign state, international or foreign organisation in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation’, the new one criminalised the ‘establishment and maintenance of relations of cooperation with a representative of a foreign state, international or foreign organisation with the aim of providing assistance in activities knowingly directed against state security’. In other words, ‘establishing and maintaining relations’ became a potential crime if the investigation and the court perceive the presence that the ‘purpose of assistance’ in these activities is directed against security. In practical terms, the new article has become a kind of insurance measure for the FSB: if there is a lack of evidence in the case for 'treason', it is possible to charge them with at least 'cooperation with the purpose of assistance'.

At the same time, Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation introduced a new type of treason — 'defection to the enemy'. The first person accused under this section was 20-year-old anti-war activist Savely Frolov, who attempted to leave for Georgia but was detained using the 'roundabout' technique of administrative arrests, which is often used in cases of treason. 

The last amendment to the article on treason was made in April 2023, immediately after the sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza, who received 25 years in a ‘strict regime’ - now under this article you can receive up to life imprisonment. Starting from 1 February 2024, an amendment to the law 'On State Secrets' will come into force, which stipulates that lawyers admitted to defending state secrets cases may be banned from leaving the country, which will undoubtedly become a new factor of pressure on those who can defend those accused under Article 275.

Without witnesses and failures

In addition to the dramatic increase in the number of 'espionage' cases, there is a noticeable change in the actual legal situation surrounding them. The 2018 report stated that in at least 23 cases of treason and espionage, state-appointed lawyers or lawyers acting by agreement whose actions harmed the defendants were involved — typically advising them to plead guilty and to cooperate with the investigation. At the same time, the dissemination of information about the case and public resonance in certain instances helped the defendants to some extent— 'information provided protection.' High-profile examples of this kind include the cases of Svetlana Davydova (case dismissed due to the absence of a crime), Gennady Kravtsov (appeal reduced the sentence from 14 to 6 years), Oksana Sevastidi (cassation reduced the sentence from 7 to 3 years) and Pyotr Parpulov (sentenced to 12 years, but released for health reasons).

Now the situation has changed significantly. Information on 'spy' cases is classified, and gathering sufficient statistics is impossible. However, based on the existing practices of handling such cases, at least at the regional level, it can be assumed that today those who choose to make a deal with the investigation, admit guilt, have a state-appointed lawyer and maintain 'radio-silencer' receive shorter sentences. Meanwhile, in high-profile cases that resonate with the public the verdicts look demonstratively cruel, despite the inconsistencies of the charges and even the absence of a coherent narrative. Thus, Vladimir Kara-Murza, as already mentioned, was sentenced to 25 years in a penal colony (he was also charged under articles on disseminating 'fakes' and cooperation with an 'undesirable organisation'), Ivan Safronov was sentence to 22 years in a ‘strict regime’, and 71-year-old physicist Vladimir Golubkin received 12 years in a ‘strict regime’ colony.

The 2018 report noted that in 39 cases (approximately 40%) between 1997 and 2018, sentences were imposed below the minimum threshold, and two sentences with suspended sentences were mentioned. Human rights activists have attributed this to the court's doubts about the defendant's guilt (in a normal judicial system, there should have been an acquittal at this point). Since the beginning of the war there have been no such cases — the prosecution and the courts have exhibited demonstrative ruthlessness.

Furthermore, in the past, 'spy' cases were only surprising in terms of their complete absurdity: Gennady Kravtsov was convicted for sending his CV to Sweden, and Antonina Zimina and Konstantin Antonets were prosecuted because a serving FSB officer appeared in their wedding photos. Today, along with absurdity, investigators have added evident sadism. For example, physicist Dmitry Kolker, diagnosed with stage four cancer, was arrested in a hospital in Novosibirsk and taken to Moscow, where he died three days later in the Lefortovo detention centre.

Mechanics of ‘spymania’

The logic of prosecutions under articles on treason differs significantly from the logic of prosecutions brought under articles on 'discrediting' the army and distributing 'fakes'. According to OVD-Info, since February 2022, approximately 800 'anti-war' criminal cases have been opened (these are only those cases that the human rights activists know about). The subject of these cases and their sentences become well known in society, which has the function of intimidating dissenters. At the same time, cases of treason are conducted and tried under the cover of almost total secrecy, and the verdicts are prohibited from publication. In other words, information about them is minimised in the public sphere. 

Such secrecy, glaring exaggerations in the charges, and an increasingly widespread practice of provocations lead to the assumption that the logic behind initiating treason cases is subordinated to the tasks of internal reporting — a plan to catch 'spies' and 'defectors', which appears to have multiplied substantially during the war. Moreover, the practice of handling such cases expands the realm of 'legal emergency', where neither publicity, nor procedural requirements, nor the legal profession can effectively act as a check on the arbitrariness of intelligence agencies and judges.

In this situation, the dynamics of opening new 'spy' cases will largely depend on the level of spymania at the top. A vivid case of this can be seen in the 'hunt for traitors' campaign among Russian scientists working on hypersonic technology, which is the subject of a separate report by First Department. According to Vladimir Putin, Russian developments in this area are ahead of foreign ones, and although this opinion is doubted by some experts, Ivan Pavlov attributes the arrests of 11 hypersonic researchers between 2015 and the end of 2023 to this. According to human rights activists, Naib Nagumanov, head of the fourth (economic) service of the FSB, is responsible for the persecution of scientists. The arrests of three employees of the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (including its director) between July 2022 and April 2023 even prompted an open letter from their colleagues. In the letter, they wrote that they 'simply do not understand how they can continue to do their work' when 'any article or report can become a reason for charges of treason' (scientific contacts with foreign colleagues has also become a reason for opening cases).

Thus, the mechanics of the espionage campaign involve initially expanding the interpretation of ‘treason’ through legislative amendments, ‘rubber-stamping’ the relevant articles of the Criminal Code. On the one hand, this allows for broadening the circle of potential defendants, and on the other hand, it significantly lightens the burden of proof, providing investigators with a tool to coerce defendants into making deals with the investigation and admitting guilt in exchange for reduced prison terms. At the same time, all elements of external control over the investigation and trial are eliminated. As a result, the scale of the spy campaign becomes a matter of 'appetite for suspicion' and departmental bargaining. The former tends to grow in line with the corresponding 'planned' indicators, while the latter is aimed at simplifying the task of satisfying the growing ‘appetite for suspicion’.