A Soyuz 2.1a rocket booster with a Frigate upper stage block launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. The Soyuz 2.1.a rocket booster is to deliver Russian Kanopus-V No3 and No4 remote sensing satellites and 9 small satellites to orbit. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images)
A Soyuz 2.1a rocket booster with a Frigate upper stage block launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome. The Soyuz 2.1.a rocket booster is to deliver Russian Kanopus-V No3 and No4 remote sensing satellites and 9 small satellites to orbit. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Donat SorokinTASS via Getty Images)
By Lee Ferran / July 25, 2018 5:00 am

Authorities in Russia have arrested one man and are investigating a potentially much wider circle of purported spies inside the nation’s space and missile program, according to local media reports.

On Monday Russia’s state space corporation, Roscosmos, confirmed a surprise search had taken place at a subordinate organization called the Central Research Institute of Machine-Building (TsNIIMash) related to some “events” in 2013. TsNIIMash is described on its website as an experimental rocket and space research center. “The investigation continues,” the Roscosmos statement said.

Russia’s TASS wire service said that an internal commission had been established “after some staffers of Roscosmos’s central research institute [presumably TsNIIMash] were accused of leaking state secrets to Western intelligence services.” Another TASS report put the number of suspects at around 10.

One of the alleged perpetrators, identified as 74-year-old Viktor Kudryavtsev, reportedly has been arrested on accusations of high treason. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper said Kudryavtsev allegedly passed along secrets related to Russia’s hypersonic weapons program. The reports did not identify the Western intelligence agency.

John Sipher, a former senior CIA official who served in Moscow, was skeptical of the ordeal as described in the Russian reports and of the scientists’ purported links to at least American intelligence agencies.

“There is a chance this is real, but in most cases, the Russians arrest people for espionage who have no connection to U.S. intelligence agencies,” Sipher told RealClearLife. “More often these people are in touch with academics, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or people who have no connection to intelligence… I think the Russians know that these are not real espionage cases but publicize these things in order to send a message to their people to steer clear of foreigners.”

The space agency scandal is unfolding in parallel to another Russian intrigue – this one playing out in Washington, D.C. In that case, 29-year-old Russian national Maria Butina has been arrested on charges of acting as a covert agent for the Kremlin. Butina purportedly infiltrated conservative political organizations and attempted to set up back-channel communications to Russian officials.

Considering the time-honored practice of swapping spy-for-spy, RealClearLife asked Sipher if it was possible Kudryavtsev had been picked up so the Kremlin could trade him for Butina, should the accusations against both of them be substantiated. Sipher said he was only speculating on both cases from the outside, but he doubted it was about a trade.

“Possible, but not likely,” he said. “It’s too early to talk swap. She [Butina] would need to be convicted first. I just think it is unlikely because the timing is just too tight… It is just too convenient to have happened right after Butina was arrested.”

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.