Treason in Russia can almost mean anything these days, say rights campaigners.
The high-profile arrest last week of former defense reporter Ivan Safronov on a charge of high treason has prompted an international outcry, but his detention is part of a Kremlin-sponsored "spy mania" that's seeing the net being cast far and wide for traitors and spies and entangling not only reporters and academic researchers.
The number of people charged and convicted of treason and espionage has jumped five-fold in Russia since 2011 — with a noticeable acceleration after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Twelve people were convicted in 2009 compared with 62 last year, according to MediaZona, an opposition website. Of the more than 300 charged for treason or espionage — or for divulging state secrets — since 2011, only one of those accused managed to secure an acquittal.
Russia's FSB intelligence agency is under pressure from President Vladimir Putin to uncover spies, according to political activists and commentators. "Every day, without interruption, brings more searches, detentions, arrests and criminal charges," said Ilya Klishin, an opposition journalist and one of the organizers of the 2011-'12 protests in Moscow against election fraud.
"Maybe there is no deeper logic behind all of this than the desire to intimidate the population, to instill terror — in the literal sense of the word," he wrote in an opinion article for the English-language Moscow Times newspaper. "It has become a mechanical morning ritual: Wake up and scan the news to learn whom the authorities came for that day."
He said Russian authorities are targeting largely journalists and historians and that "the rest of us could be next."
In fact, several people who would classify themselves as "the rest" have been charged with espionage in a series of bizarre arrests the past few years, including of a newly-married couple who have been in jail for a year.
Antonina Zimina was arrested in 2018, then last year her husband, Moscow-based lawyer Konstantin Antonets. Both are accused of blowing an FSB agent's cover. Antonina's father told Kommersant newspaper that during their 2015 wedding reception the agent, a friend, drank heavily, gossiped about his work and took photos with other guests. The happy couple sent copies of the wedding snaps to friends. These were posted on social media sites with the agent figuring in the photographs.
It is not clear whether the couple were targeted because of their work, but analysts say that is unlikely as Antonina worked as a consultant for a Russian think tank founded by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin loyalist.
Other arrests have included the detention of Oksana Sevastidi, a storekeeper from Sochi, in southern Russia, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sending a text message to a friend in neighboring Georgia about a train she spotted carrying military equipment. Sevastidi served two years in prison before Putin pardoned her amid a public uproar.
'No spy mania in Russia'
Last week, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed claims that Moscow is in the grip of spy mania or that the rising treason and espionage arrests are a show of force aimed at intimidating critics. "Compared, for example, with the U.S. and the EU, there is no spy mania in Russia," he said, adding that he was not aware there had been a rise in espionage cases in Russia.
He added, though, that foreign intelligence services are operating aggressively in Russia.
"It is no secret that foreign intelligence services are not slacking off in Russia, they work day and night against Russian officials, and Russian intelligence officers," he said, adding Russian counter-intelligence "is not sitting back either."
Russian journalists were shocked by the arrest of Ivan Safronov, now a communications adviser to Russia's Roscosmos space agency. The thirty-year-old Safronov denies allegations of selling military secrets to the Czech Republic and the United States. For many years he was a highly respected military correspondent for leading Russian newspapers. So far, the authorities have no revealed evidence justifying the treason charge.
Ivan Pavlov, the journalist's lawyer, told independent broadcaster Dozhd that the charges were linked to Safronov's past reporting and not his job at the space agency, which he joined in May. If convicted, Safronov could be sentenced to 20 years in jail. Since his arrest, dozens of journalists have been arrested protesting his detention, most have been released.
"Now Vladimir Putin's been in power for 20 years and he doesn't care what anyone thinks," said one of Safronov's supporters, journalist Grigory Pasko. He told the BBC: "There are no brakes now; no restraints. They can do what they want, how they want and to whomever they want." In 1997, Pasko was accused of treason.
Safronov's lawyer, Pavlov, says there appear to be trends when it comes to the FSB targeting. "A few years ago there was a trend [of going after] scientists, they started taking them in droves. Well now, it's you [journalists]," he told the Meduza, an independent news site.
Echoes of the past
The trends, though, start merging, according to Ilya Klishin. He said the Russian intelligence agencies seem even more emboldened since the amending this month of the Russian constitution allowing Putin to remain in office until 2036. They seem suddenly to have "redoubled their activity" and "things feel different."
For some, the rising treason arrests amount to an echo, albeit a faint one, of the blood-drenched 1930s, when communist dictator Joseph Stalin staged show trials of his enemies or those he perceived as potential threats, cowering an already terrified population. The Moscow show trials also helped to intensify nationalist feeling by making Russians feel their country was beleaguered — under threat not just from ideological foes abroad but from fifth-columnists at home as well.