By Maria Sheahan
BERLIN (Reuters) - A German court on Wednesday sentenced a Russian researcher to a one-year suspended prison sentence for spying on Europe's Ariane space launcher project.
The man, identified by the court only as Ilnur N., handed over information on research projects, including the Ariane Next launcher, to a handler from Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on several occasions between 2019 and 2021, according to the court verdict.
The trial casts a spotlight on Russian intelligence activity in the West, which has introduced sweeping sanctions against Russia over what Moscow calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine, launched on Feb. 24.
N. had worked as a research associate at the University of Augsburg, a centre for aerospace research, when the SVR handler approached him. Augsburg is also home to large parts of the manufacturing for the next-generation Ariane 6 launch vehicle.
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.
But the Munich court said that the SVR handler pretended that he worked for a Russian bank and needed information for private investments. N. did not know for sure that he was working for Russian intelligence, though he had his suspicions, it said.
Another reason for the relatively lenient sentence, which will mean two years of probation for N., is that he cooperated with the prosecution and that he only gave the handler information from generally accessible sources rather than from confidential documents.
In addition to the suspended sentence, 500 euros worth of assets are to be confiscated from N., which is how much the court believes he received from the handler as payment in April 2021.
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 labelled "state terrorism".
Russia dismissed the state terrorism and murder verdict as "not objective and politically motivated".
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Mike Harrison)