Russia has used attacks on civilians in Ukraine to showcase its rocket technology, but blowback from its invasion has weakened its already faltering astro-space program.
When the US imposed sanctions to degrade Russia’s aerospace industry, including embargoes on semiconductors, lasers, sensors, and navigation equipment, Dmitry Rogozin, then chief of Russia’s space program, warned it might cause the International Space Station to fall on the US or Europe.
These comments and others from a supposedly serious scientific organization did cause a crash — the decades-old US-Russia space partnership was effectively ended after decades of joint work, including the Soviet era, that had benefited science, détente, and humanity.
The events of 2022-2023 have made it more likely Russia would step away from exploration and, with China, focus on military applications in space. This is the assessment of Tim Marshall in his new book The Future of Geography: How the Competition in Space Will Change Our World (Scribner, October 2023). Marshall discusses state and privately-owned space programs, concentrating on those of the US, China, and the flailing Russian Federation, its multifaceted fall exacerbated by the Ukraine war.
In the immediate aftermath of Putin’s attacks on Ukraine, Russia said it would no longer sell rocket engines to the US and would terminate scientific experiments with Germany on the ISS. For its part, Berlin switched off a German-built space telescope hunting for black holes in a joint project with Moscow.
Roscosmos, Russia’s version of NASA, halted launches of Soyuz rockets from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana and withdrew its workforce. The last straw came when Roscosmos published photographs of cosmonauts on the ISS holding flags of two Ukrainian regions occupied by Russian troops.
The big winner was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which stepped in to provide rocket services to US and European programs, such as the London-based One Web (although Musk’s near-monopoly is now causing some serious concern.) Russia had already been losing market share in the businesses of outer space, and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine meant it was increasingly cut off from cooperation, funding, and expertise. The downward trend accelerated as thousands of Russia’s best and brightest moved abroad.
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Even before the Ukraine war, Russia’s Western partners were tired of the relationship and complained about crude Russian language, incompetence, and unthinking behavior. In 2018 TASS, offering no evidence, accused US astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor of having a breakdown onboard the ISS and drilling a hole in a docked Soyuz capsule. NASA said the allegations were without foundation. Others suggested Russia was maligning her to cover for its own technological failings.
In 2021, a huge Russian space laboratory docked with the ISS and threw it into cartwheels when its thrusters started firing. The same year, Russia destroyed one of its own obsolete satellites, apparently as part of a weapons test, sending chunks of debris toward the ISS. And as Russia’s war of aggression slowed in the face of Ukrainian resistance and Western arms, Rogozin threatened to leave American astronauts stranded on the station.
Russia’s military efforts in space have been linked since 2018 with China’s bid to undermine US superiority. However, despite their ostensible friendship, China and Russia have been reluctant to share their best technology — having achieved many early triumphs in space, Russia is still uncomfortable playing the role of junior partner.
While it remains ahead in many facets of space technology, China has the funds, the trained scientists and engineers, the confidence, and the ambition to excel in space. The two countries plan to build an International Lunar Research Station “on the surface and/or in the new orbit of the moon” by 2035 and are working together to make their different versions of satellite-based positioning compatible.
Though Russia does not publish such numbers, outsiders estimate the Kremlin budgets $1.5bn for its military space programs and $3bn for Roscosmos, with very little set aside for research and development. The US, in contrast, now spends $25bn on NASA and $26.3bn on military activities in space. Even if everything else was equal, the disparity shows the pressures limiting Russia’s activities.
With increasing sanctions hitting the Russian economy, and ever greater isolation from world science and commerce, Roscosmos will struggle to compete. As Marshall observes, the détente between the Soyuz-Apollo docking and the ISS is being lost — one of the many costs of Vladimir Putin’s war.
Walter Clemens is Associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University. He wrote ‘Blood Debts: What Do Putin and Xi Owe Their Victims?’ (Washington DC: Westphalia Press, 2023).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.