The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Friday that it is quitting a high-tech research partnership with the Russian government that has long been viewed with suspicion by security experts.
The partnership began in 2010 with an agreement between MIT and the Russian Skolkovo Foundation to launch a Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, or “Skoltech.” The institute is the cornerstone of the new Skolkovo Innovation Center, a $3 billion project to build a Russian version of Silicon Valley — or Kendall Square — outside Moscow.
In response to inquiries from GBH News this week, MIT declined a request for an interview but issued a statement saying, “As part of MIT’s established elevated risk review process for activities in Russia, the Institute is reviewing all activities under the program.”
Friday night, MIT issued a new statement announcing that it is severing ties with Skoltech.
“In light of the unacceptable military actions against Ukraine by the Russian government, MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in consultation with senior leadership, determined that MIT’s relationship with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) must end,” the statement said. “This step is a rejection of the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine. We take it with deep regret because of our great respect for the Russian people and our profound appreciation for the contributions of the many extraordinary Russian colleagues we have worked with.”
In the wake of the invasion, the United States has imposed deep economic sanctions on Russia, including a ban on technology exports from the U.S.
The formal relationship between MIT and Skoltech was thought to have ended in 2018 when Russian billionaire and Skolkovo leader Victor Vekselberg was ousted from MIT’s board of trustees. Vekselberg is among a close circle of billionaires allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin who have been targeted with sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union over the past several years.
But the university in 2019 signed a five-year extension of its lucrative partnership with the Russian technology research institute, which has long raised espionage fears among foreign policy experts and the FBI. The extension came just three months after the federal government announced it was investigating MIT’s compliance with reporting requirements for the Russian money it had received in connection with the project.
In 2020, the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting dug into the controversial relationship between MIT and Skolkovo.
MIT has previously waved off criticism of its Russia program, which it has defended as an opportunity to leverage the intellectual power of Russia, and vice versa. In a 2020 GBH interview, MIT rocket scientist Edward Crawley, one of Skoltech’s creators, said: “MIT has an international policy. We won’t build MIT campuses around the world, but we will help other universities develop along the lines of MIT. This is a manifestation of the foreign policy of MIT— to create like-minded institutions around the world.”
Critics said U.S. universities should not be helping Putin create an advanced technology institute.
Two years ago, GBH interviewed a Russian dissident hiding out in Kyiv, Ukraine. At the time, Ilya Ponomarev said he was shocked by MIT’s decision to renew the partnership with the Skolkovo Foundation’s Skoltech. Ponomarev — now a businessman — once headed up international development and technology transfer for Skolkovo/Skoltech and worked closely with MIT.
Ponomarev was incredulous over the continued relationship because of the security concerns and concluded that the multimillion dollar partnership may have overridden those concerns. “[The] Russian government was paying quite a lot, there was hundreds of millions” of dollars.
Ponomarev fled to Ukraine after publicly criticizing Putin for invading Crimea. He was the only member of the Duma to vote in favor of condemning Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.