13.11.2013 | Halya Coynash

Spy Catching the Ukrainian Way


Volodymyr Chumakov in whose radio electronics textbook the Security Service believe they found state secrets  - or questions, the answers to which WILL contain state secrets

A university professor and two young men are on trial in Ukraine for alleged state treason over material freely available on the Internet.  In a case ominously reminiscent of notorious spying trials in Putin’s Russia, the SBU have accused the men of trying to pass this material which they claim contains state secrets to China.  The investigators have not established when the supposed spying took place, nor have they provided any evidence that the Chinese colleague of the two young men was in fact an intelligence agent.  

A Chinese connection does not make for a spying story, and this one lacks any credibility. However the two young men have been held in detention now for close on two years, with almost nothing known of the trial which is taking place behind closed doors.  The 60-year-old radio electronics professor remains at liberty thanks to two prominent scientists who interceded on his behalf, but is facing the same 15 year sentence if convicted.

The tale of security service vigilance descends at times into pure farce however this is Ukraine where the lack of any evidence and nonsensical charges are seldom impediments to long sentences and where the rate of acquittals stands at close to zero.

Ukrainian reality

The story began in 2008 when two young men – a former radio electronics student Oleksy Rud and Serhiy Chychotka met Hao Xichen, a Chinese national who had just graduated from a St. Petersburg institute.  Science in Ukraine is hopelessly under-funded, and they decided to create a firm - Top Science Ukraine – which would seek Chinese investors to support scientific initiatives in Ukraine. 

All of this was entirely legal and the facts are not disputed by the SBU.  The latter, however, insists that this was all a front for providing “intelligence” to China. 

This is where Rud’s former professor, Volodymyr Chumakov comes in – and the Internet.  The Web provided a rich source of information, mainly foreign, on railguns which Chumakov used in a textbook for students.  The prospect of funding for various projects from Chinese investors was agreed with his university which actively encouraged academic staff to seek outside financing.  A potential investor had asked for a report, and Chumakov intended to provide the book based largely on lectures to students.  That was when the SBU stepped in and prevented it being passed to the Chinese investor. 

Unmapped territory

From now on the story becomes quite incomprehensible.  According to the SBU, Chumakov disclosed classified information, otherwise known as state secrets, in the book. 

There was some material on railguns which for unknown reasons was classified until 2006.  Chumakov says that he never set eyes on that material and independent experts have not found the match which the SBU claim is there.  Even if it were there, the material ceased to be classified in 2006.

There has never been any attempt to use railguns for military purposes in Ukraine and next to no research in the area at all.  Why Chinese intelligence bodies would send a spy to Ukraine under cover to extract information which is available on the Internet remains a mystery. 

One possible explanation for the trials, however, is that the SBU decided their statistics on uncovering espionage were poor.  This is grotesque yet by no means uncommon in Ukraine.. 

According to the indictment against Chumakov, an expert assessment examined a list of 12 questions in the book and concluded that the answers to these questions “will contain a state secret”.   The entire indictment creates a surreal impression with other phrases no less startling.  The investigators constantly repeat that they were unable to establish when this or that happened, how the alleged secrets were passed on, or which intelligence services in China were involved. 

Hao Xichen is back in China but has made an official application to testify by skype in the trial of Rud and Chychotka.  This form of communication is allowed by law, and Hao Xichen’s testimony is surely vital in the case, yet his application was rejected.  Why such reluctance to question the key player who, according to the SBU, recruited three Ukrainians to serve Chinese intelligence?

What is there to conceal?

Two men have been in custody since 2011.  Chumakov remains at liberty, however all research work has effectively stopped, and he has been subjected to a number of searches.  He learned by chance during one of those searches that his textbook has now been classified as secret and filed a suit against the SBU over this decision. This was rejected by the Kharkiv Administrative Court on Nov. 7 over a formality.

Chumakov asserts that the description of a railgun which the SBU decided was the technology for creating a secret weapon is widely available in open resources with diagrams and instructions on how to make it.  A simple check of Google confirms this.  Physicist Yury Lonin from the Kharkiv Physics and Technology Institute says that three physicists carried out their own assessment of the passages which the SBU deem criminal.  They agree entirely that none of the material is secret and that material on railguns has been on open access since 1986.  A translation of the extracts which the SBU point to in their accusations can be found here: Where the SBU found “state secrets”

Ominous analogies

Any apparent similarities to slapstick comedy are misleading.  This case has its antecedents in Soviet, and specifically Stalin’s day.  We see the same suspicion of foreigners and surreal charges sometimes of spying for different regimes at the same time, with plausibility the last thing on anybody’s mind.  Then and now spies were “uncovered”, people’s lives destroyed according to quota.  The tradition has been reinstated under Putin in Russia.  22 years into Ukraine’s independence, it is a legacy which should be rejected. 

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