Germany charges Russian suspected of space tech espionage

The suspect allegedly passed information on Europe's Ariane space launcher vehicle to handlers from Russian intelligence.

 Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard, is rolled out to the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana December 23, 2021 (photo credit: VIA REUTERS)
Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard, is rolled out to the launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana December 23, 2021
(photo credit: VIA REUTERS)

Germany last year arrested and charged a Russian citizen with spying for Russia, prosecutors said on Thursday, alleging he had passed information on Europe's Ariane space launcher vehicle to handlers from Russian intelligence.

Federal prosecutors said the suspect, identified only as Ilnur N., worked as a researcher at a Bavarian university until his arrest in June last year. He has been in custody since and was charged on December 9.

The arrest casts a spotlight on Russian intelligence activity in Germany even as Berlin faces pressure from Western allies to take a more robust stance in support of Ukraine as Russian forces mass on its borders.

Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) first approached the suspect no later than autumn of 2019, the prosecutors said in a statement, adding he had told the SVR he was prepared to cooperate with them.

"The agency's interests particularly focused on the various stages in the development of the European space launcher Ariane and the accused's research into tools," the prosecutors said.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the board of trustees of the Russian Geographical Society via a video conference call in Moscow, Russia April 14, 2021 (credit: VIA REUTERS)Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the board of trustees of the Russian Geographical Society via a video conference call in Moscow, Russia April 14, 2021 (credit: VIA REUTERS)

An official familiar with the matter said the suspect worked at the University of Augsburg, a center for aerospace research. The city is also home to large parts of the manufacturing for the next-generation Ariane 6 launch vehicle.

An individual with a matching name was listed on various social media platforms as having worked in the mechanical engineering department at the university after an earlier stint at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.

Jointly owned by Airbus and France's Safran, ArianeGroup is one of the best-established players in the fast-growing global launch market, where competition between players like Russia's Roskosmos and private sector upstarts like Jeff Bezos Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX is fierce.

From November 2019 onwards, the suspect regularly met a Germany-based handling officer, repeatedly handing over information on research projects, receiving 2,500 euros ($2,800) in cash, the prosecutors said.

The sum, modest compared to the risk of a prison sentence, could suggest that the information provided was publicly available or gossip of limited value, the official said.

Germany is a frequent target of Russian intelligence operations, Germany's counter-espionage agency has said.

In December, a German court found that Russian agents had been behind the 2019 murder, in broad daylight in a central Berlin park, of a Chechen dissident, an act the judge labeled "state terrorism."

Russia dismissed the state terrorism and murder verdict as "not objective and politically motivated."