Russia and China are close Why are there so many spy cases?

The Central Asian country often participates in events with China and Russia, and Russian soldiers raise the Chinese and Kyrgyz flags during a military competition event outside Moscow in 2014. (Photo by Bai Hua, Voice of America)

Russia has handed down a new spy case involving the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike similar cases in the past, which have involved science and technology, the new spy case took place in a border area of military significance between the two countries, and Russia has kept the case more deliberately low-profile. Despite increasingly close relations between Russia and China, espionage cases between the two countries have become more frequent.

Eight years in prison for collecting intelligence for the Chinese Communist Party

A local resident was sentenced to eight years in prison for treason after a man named Vasiliev collected intelligence for a foreign spy agency, the Zabaikalsky Krai court in Chita said in a Feb. 25 release. The court said the entire trial was confidential and closed to the public. Several local federal judges ruled on the case.

Russian media reported that Vasiliev, 52, provided information to the Chinese Communist Party spy agency. Unlike many spy cases involving China that have occurred in Russia in the past, very little information has been released to the public about this spy case. The court handed down its verdict in early February, but it took more than three weeks before the verdict was released to the public in late February.

Vasiliev was arrested in August 2019, and news of his arrest was only made public in October. At one point after his arrest, he was transported to Moscow for arraignment. Because much of the trial material was printed with classified and top secret labels, other people, including Family members, were barred from attending the entire court trial.

The identity of the convicted Vasiliev has also not been revealed. Russian officials have not disclosed the areas in which Vasiliev collected intelligence for China. Most of Russia’s past espionage cases have involved local scientists selling or providing scientific information to China. Most of the cases were in the fields of aviation, space, engines, submarines, submarine-launched missiles, rockets, and even Arctic and basic science.

Unlike past spy cases involving China, the border area is of military significance

But the case just announced is different from the past. In addition to the special secrecy of the case, the Zabaikalsky Krai, where the case took place, is socio-economically backward, with local finances heavily dependent on subsidies from the central government in Moscow, not to mention the absence of important Russian scientific research institutions and scientific talent in the region.

However, the region has important mineral resources such as Gold and uranium mines. Zabaikalsky Krai borders China and Mongolia, and was the site of the first Russian-Chinese border treaty, the Nibchu Treaty.

This unique location makes the Zabaikalye Territory even more important militarily. Chinese troops have visited the region several times to take part in joint military exercises of the two countries’ armies on large exercise grounds. The 29th Army of the Russian Army was formed in 1969 after the Soviet-Chinese border conflict, when the Soviet Union urgently redeployed troops from the north to the Zabaikalsky Krai, mainly targeting northern Europe.

After the Russian military reform 10 years ago, the 29th Army also commanded tactical missile units equipped with Iskander missiles, as well as air defense and other military units deployed along the Russian-Chinese border. The 29th Army is also responsible for managing a number of large local ordnance depots. The purpose is that in the event of a change in the situation on the Russian-Chinese border, Russian reinforcements from the European region can be brought in and used from these ordnance depots immediately.

During the years when the Soviet Union and China were at war, the capital city of Chita was the seat of the Soviet Army’s Zabaikalye Military District Command. The Soviet heavy armored clusters stationed in Mongolia in those years were under the command of the Zabaikalye Military District. At the end of World War II, when Soviet troops were deployed to China, and after the armed conflict on the Soviet-Chinese border, Soviet troops used or planned to use Mongolia as the main direction of attack into China.

Russia and China are not soft on spy cases

This is the second case of espionage involving the Chinese Communist Party in Russia since the first two months of the year. In January, two senior engineers of a key Russian aerospace and naval ship engine company were arrested. The two men, who are also executives, are suspected of providing engine technology to China after retirement and also training Chinese personnel in related fields. In the last year, Russia has also seen several cases of espionage involving the Chinese Communist Party.

The Perception of Russian-Chinese relations is that they are getting closer and closer, with officials claiming that there is no limit to the closeness of the two countries. But while the two sides are interacting more, the frequency of espionage cases between the two countries has shocked many observers.

The spy case, which was just sentenced in the border area between the two countries, also reflects the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party is active in intelligence gathering in Russia. On the other hand, it also shows that Russia is not in the least bit wary and defensive of the Chinese Communist Party, and never softens its hand when it does.

Just a day before the Baikalsky Krai court issued its verdict in the spy case, Russian leader Vladimir Putin was in Moscow to attend the annual conference of personnel from Russia’s intelligence and security agencies. In his speech, Putin praised the efficient work of Russia’s counterintelligence agencies, which annually uncover many foreign intelligence-gathering activities and informants in Russia.

The actual state of Russian-Chinese relations differs from the official announcement

Current affairs commentator Nikolsky said Russia’s thinking about China as a threat has never changed. And the closer the two countries are, the more people feel that underlying mistrust in their relationship.

Many observers, journalists, are not as optimistic about Russia-China relations as they were five years ago,” Nikolsky said. Few people now speak in high terms about the unprecedented new level of relations between the two countries, about the fact that relations with China will be long-term and mutually beneficial, and so on. Many people now know that there are too many problems under the table and that many of the goals set have not been met.”

He said that the more one engages with people who know the actual state of relations between the two countries, the more one gets the impression that many people are very unimpressed with the official propaganda directed at the relationship.