Enemies of the state: How the FSB is using accusations of treason to crackdown on opposition to the war in Ukraine
Increasing number of Russians are being detained on treason charges, many suspected of intent to commit acts of espionage. BBC Russian had been looking at some recent cases.
By Sergey Goryashko.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, increasing numbers of Russians are being detained on treason charges, many under a new law allowing the prosecution of those suspected of intent to commit acts of espionage or treason. Many are arrested on far less serious grounds, only to have the new charges added, leaving them facing up to 20 years in prison. BBC Russian has been looking at some recent cases and asks if the treason laws are now being used as a weapon to crackdown on opposition to the war in Ukraine.
BBC is blocked in Russia. We’ve attached the story in Russian as a pdf file for readers there.
On 7 October 2022 Valery Kachin, a 36-year-old land surveyor from the Far Eastern province of Birobidzhan, was sentenced to 15 days detention for using bad language in a local police station.
Five days later, the court dealing with his case upgraded the charges against him to treason, under Article 275 of the Criminal Code. By December he had been transferred to Moscow where the Lefortovo district court ordered him to be detained for a further three months.
The FSB says Kachin was detained on suspicion of spying for Ukraine and handing over secret information about Birobidzhan region, which borders China. It also alleges he was planning to leave Russia for Ukraine, to obtain Ukrainian citizenship, and join the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
His detention was announced by the FSB on 24 December in a press release detailing a series of arrests across the country of a total of six people the FSB said were aiding and abetting the Ukrainian security services and army.
The FSB’s announcement came just days after Vladimir Putin made a keynote speech in Moscow to mark Security Agency Wоrkers’ day.
“It is essential to suppress the actions of foreign security services, and quickly identify traitors, spies, and saboteurs,” he told assembled ranks of secret policemen.
The law Valery Kachin has been charged under - Article 275 of the Criminal Code (High Treason), was amended in July 2022 to include a new offence of ‘defection to the enemy’.
The peculiarity of this situation is that materials from the previous case, for vandalism, formed the basis of the new case, about treason
Alexey Kotelnikov, lawyer
Defecting is defined as “participation in forces directly opposing the Russian Federation”. The punishment for this, as well as for treason, is between twelve and twenty years of imprisonment.
According to the press release, the FSB suspected Kachin of two crimes simultaneously: treason and intent to defect to Ukraine.
Until the amendment to the treason law, preparing for or attempting to commit a crime was a separate offence under a different article of the criminal code and subject to a lesser sentence.
However, crimes of intent can now be prosecuted under Article 275 (high treason) meaning defendants can be given much longer sentences.
Kachin is one of dozens of people charged with espionage and treason in 2022.
The BBC has discovered three other similar cases of people also accused under article 275 of preparing or attempting to commit treason.
On 7 November a twenty-one-year-old student called Gleb Verdiyan from Astrakhan was charged with preparing to commit an act of treason.
He had been detained several days earlier at a bus stop in Moscow near Vnukovo airport on his way to catch a plane to Istanbul. He was accused of using bad language, given a 10 days’ administrative detention before the new charges were added.
On 31 October, twenty-year-old Muscovite Saveli Frolov was stopped by Russian border guards on the Georgian border and forced to unlock his phone.
The guards found a chat on social media in which Frolov and his friends had discussed a Russian legion fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. He was given 15 days administrative arrest on minor misconduct charges.
But on 2 December he was charged with preparing to commit an act of treason by travelling via Georgia, Turkey and Poland to join Russians fighting for Ukraine. His lawyer told the Bumaga news site that Frolov was charged despite having neither a Schengen visa to enable him to travel to Poland, nor a ticket to Istanbul.
In December, a third case came to light. Fifty-eight-year-old Igor Pokushin, a civilian pilot originally from Odesa, was arrested in Abakan in Khakassia in May, accused of defacing a Z-banner on the façade of the local history museum.
Pokushin was charged with vandalism, after writing ‘Glory to Ukraine’ on the banner, and was released on bail. He decided to leave the country for Kazakhstan but was arrested at Krasnoyarsk airport, and taken back to Abakan.
On the way back, his wife told the Holod news site that he was taken to the woods and, threatened with a pistol and a taser, forced to record a confession, in which he stated that he was “travelling to Ukraine to join the armed forces”.
In Abakan, he was put under house arrest, given a six-month suspended sentence and then the following day was re-arrested, this time on treason charges, and remanded in custody.
Pokushin’s lawyer, Alexey Kotelnikov, told the BBC that his client will not plead guilty. While he does not deny that he was going through Kazakhstan to Ukraine, he maintains that he was going to visit relatives, not fight. Pokushin’s confession was recorded on video under duress, but without witnesses, the lawyer states.
“The peculiarity of this situation is that materials from the previous case, for vandalism, formed the basis of the new case, about treason,” Kotelnikov told the BBC.
“A substantial part of the case consists of witness testimony from the previous case”. His lawyer claims that Pokushin found ‘familiar names’ among the witnesses in his attempted treason case.
An average Joe
Back in Birobidzhan, Valery Kachin’s family and friends are at a loss to explain how this quiet and mild-mannered young father could have ended up facing such serious charges.
After graduating from Amur State University in 2014 with a degree in information systems and technology, Kachin worked for the local authorities first in property management, and then as a surveyor and cartographer. At the time of his arrest he was working in a local nature reserve., documenting land deeds.
“He is a desk jockey,” a colleague told the BBC. “In two years here he has only been out into the forest maybe once on a tour, or for a drink at the ranger station. He has a baby daughter… He’s just an ordinary citizen, one of millions, an average Joe”.
Colleagues speculate that maybe he gave someone a map of the local area – which is close to the Chinese border and in Soviet times was heavily fortified. But they’re baffled as to why anyone would need a map of the region now.
“Whatever military secrets [there were here], have all been destroyed or sold long ago”, a colleague told the BBC.
“The border with China is right there, and the Chinese already know where everything is. Their drones fly along the border, over our territory, while ours can’t do anything”.
Valery Kachin’s wife, Ekaterina, told the BBC that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement with investigators, meaning she could not discuss her husband’s case.
“We had no chance to see him or talk to him,” she said. “He is doing well, but I can’t say any more”.
Building a case
Yevgeny Smirnov is a lawyer with the ‘Department One’, human rights organisation and is currently handling the case of Saveli Frolov, the young man arrested on the Georgian border.
Smirnov says recent treason cases initiated across Russia all seem to follow a common pattern. The security services discover something potentially suspicious about someone – a conversation on their phone about Ukraine, as in Frolov’s case, or an act of vandalism, like Igor Pokushin, the man who defaced a banner supporting the war in Ukraine. The suspect is detained and kept in custody on minor charges, buying local security officials time to consult with their colleagues in Moscow and to build a more serious case.
Until December regional branches of the FSB did not usually apply Article 275 (High treason) when prosecuting cases involving people suspected of planning to go to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces, says Smirnov.
Instead they invoked a different article of the criminal code - Article 208.
Between October and December courts in Bryansk and Krasnoyarsk regions between them handed out at least eight long prison sentences to people under Article 208, Smirnov told the BBC.
Article 275 is now starting to be used more widely, but while ‘treason by defection’ can be handled at a local level, any cases involving the transfer of state secrets are always handled in Moscow, says Smirnov.
Fоr this reason Valery Kachin, who is accused of passing on secret information to Ukraine, was transferred to Moscow; but Igor Pokushin, who is accused of trying to travel to Ukraine to fight, is still being held in Khakassia.
Twenty two cases and counting
It’s not possible to say for certain how many people have been prosecuted for treason since the start of the war in Ukraine. But two good places to start looking are the counter-intelligence service press service and information published on court website.
From studying these two sources the BBC has found 22 cases of people accused by the FSB of treason in 2022. But it’s important to note that not all cases are reported publicly.
It’s also difficult to find details about some of the treason cases that have become public.
In the December press release, in which the FSB announced the arrest of Valery Kachin, they also mentioned two men from Perm region accused of belonging to a pro-Ukrainian ‘sabotage group.
The FSB named them as Alexey Gashev and Mikhail Sokolov. It’s not clear when they were arrested and where they are being held now. The press service of the Perm regional court told the BBC they had no record of active cases against either man, and there was no record of them in the Perm garrison military court either.
In December, the FSB also announced that two further men had been arrested in Rostov region. Vladimir Ponamarev, who has Ukrainian and Russian citizenship, is suspected of supplying information to Ukraine, and Yevgeny Nikiforov is accused of trying to travel to Ukraine to join the Ukrainian army. Again the current whereabouts of both men is not know.
Into 2023 the arrests continued. An unnamed suspect was arrested in Bryansk on treason charges after trying ‘repeatedly’ to leave Russia for Ukraine. Another unnamed man from Tver was arrested at a railway station after allegedly ‘preparing to defect to the enemy’. A search of Russian court databases revealed no information about either case.
In February, Moscow’s Lefortovo court remanded a man named in custody on treason charges. He was named as ‘S.N.Peskov’ but it has proved impossible to find out any further information about him.
Russian version editor: Anastasia Lotareva.
Read this story in Russian here.