The Future of Western-Russian Civil-Space Cooperation
The Russo-Ukrainian War’s effects on the global political landscape transcend the terrestrial environment. The conflict and the sanctions placed on Russia by the United States and its allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 have significant consequences for long-standing outer-space relationships. Civil-space collaboration has been among the most positive and long-lasting areas of cooperation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, but the current geopolitical environment threatens this cooperation in ways not seen in decades. The fallout of the Russo-Ukrainian War is already affecting civil-space cooperation between Russia and the West — particularly, Russia’s partnerships with Europe and the European Space Agency in the short-term, but the longer-term consequences remain opaque. It is likely there will be a deterioration in U.S.-Russian space collaboration upon the decommissioning of the International Space Station and there does not seem to be a clear path for European reengagement with Russia on civil-space matters. There are still significant reasons — and, geopolitically, potentially much to be gained — from reengaging with Russia in the civil-space sphere despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Post-Cold War Cooperation and the Russian Space Program
Post-Cold War relations between the Russian Federation and the United States and its allies have not always been rosy, but outer-space cooperation has been one area in which the former adversaries have generally worked together well. From the early 1990s onward, the United States and Europe extended a helping hand to the faltering post-Soviet Russian space program in an attempt to prevent rocket and missile technology proliferation and to encourage “integration into the space enterprise supply chain” and commercial satellite launch markets. As early as 1992, the United States and the Russian Federation had entered into a number of agreements related to civil-space cooperation and human space flight. Indeed, so heady were the hopes of the early post-Cold War era, that, in 1993, the Clinton administration invited Russia to become a partner in the development of the International Space Station along with the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan.
The Clinton administration’s invitation reflected Western recognition of Russian expertise in space station construction and maintenance operations, as well as the importance of accessibility and rescue for the Space Station’s future inhabitants. Russia was, and remains, the only state participant in the International Space Station (other than the United States) capable of launching or returning crewed missions to the station, and its famous Soyuz rocket — the most frequently used and among the most reliable of space-launch vehicles — has played a critical role in this regard. Since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, the Soyuz has served as the primary method by which the station is resupplied and by which astronaut crews are brought to the space station. Indeed, between 2011, when the U.S. Space Shuttle was retired, and 2020, when SpaceX successfully launched NASA astronauts in its Crew Dragon capsule, the Soyuz was the only method of launching crewed missions to the International Space Station. In total, Russia has been responsible for nearly 60 percent of the crewed and un-crewed missions to man and resupply the station.
In addition to space station operations with the United States and its multinational allies, Russia has also worked closely on space activities with the rest of Europe, primarily through partnerships with the European Space Agency. Such partnerships extend back to the early and mid-1990s, with the signing of cooperation agreements related to manned spaceflight and the establishment of an European Space Agency Permanent Mission in Moscow and, more recently, have included significant partnership in civil and government space missions — including the ExoMars rover mission to Mars and a number of scientific lunar missions, as well as the joint maintenance and operation of a Soyuz launch facility at the European Space Agency spaceport in French Guiana supporting the launch of both commercial and civil and scientific satellite missions.
The International Space Station has proven to be an enduring symbol of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the West, with operations on the station touted as a “great model for society” by NASA astronauts and celebrated as a “template for future cooperation” between nations in outer space. Similarly, Europe-Russia partnerships have helped catalyze a “renaissance for Russian space science” and, similar to International Space Station operations, have been lauded as a method of increasing strategic partnerships and interdependence, which (at least theoretically) might lead to broader geopolitical cooperation. Perhaps most importantly of all, these governmental partnerships between the United States, Europe, and Russia in the space domain have been largely resilient in the face of geopolitical differences: Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, space partnerships between Russia and the West continued without significant interruption.
The Western Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
The insulation of Western-Russian space cooperation from the ups-and-downs of geopolitics began to change when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. American and European policymakers responded to Russia’s aggression by implementing wide-ranging economic sanctions, which expanded over the early days of the invasion to include direct sanctions against Russia’s central bank and the removal of other Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT monetary transfer system. By mid-March, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov estimated that nearly half of the country’s $640 billion of monetary reserves was inaccessible due to Western sanctions. Though the value of the Russian ruble had largely recovered from its initial post-sanctions crash by early May 2022, the effect of sanctions on the wider Russian economy remained significant, with inflation rising to over 17 percent, the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the looming potential for Russia to default on its sovereign debt.
Among the specific targets of the Western sanctions campaign are Russia’s space and technology sectors. The day after Russia’s invasion, President Joe Biden explicitly stated that sanctions would “degrade” Russia’s space programs. Other NATO members have implemented additional space sanctions, with the German Aerospace Center cancelling all collaboration with Russian space institutions and the United Kingdom banning space-related exports to Russia. The European Space Agency has joined in sanctions, suspending its joint ExoMars mission with Roscosmos and canceling its planned partnership with Russia on several forthcoming lunar missions. Other types of sanctions not specifically targeting the space industry, such as a blockade on the export of advanced semiconductor chips, still threaten Russian space activities and space technology development in significant ways. Despite the wide range of aerospace and technology-related sanctions, one significant space partnership has remained largely unaffected: NASA’s partnership with Roscosmos on International Space Station operations.
Russia’s Response to Space Sanctions and Short-Term Effects
Russia’s initial response to Western space-related sanctions constituted little more than Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin launching a furious Twitter tirade, threatening to cease Russian technological support to the International Space Station. But more concrete responses followed: Russia suspended its launch operations with the European Union; cut off rocket engine servicing and exports to the United States; and has held at least one previously contracted commercial satellite launch hostage in an attempt to extort a NATO member state. Along the way, the mercurial Rogozin has continued to bluster on social media and in the Russian press, threatening that the 500-ton International Space Station could be deorbited over the United States or Western Europe, that the loss of Russian rocket technology would force the United States and its allies to access space on “broomsticks,” that continued partnership in the International Space Station and other joint projects was contingent on the lifting of Western sanctions, and, several weeks later, that Russia would, in fact, leave its long-standing partnership in the International Space Station.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been less strident than Rogozin, at least in terms of Russian space activities. Downplaying the effects of Western sanctions, Putin has insisted that Roscosmos will continue its civil-space missions — including the Luna-25 Moon mission (one of the lunar missions in which the European Space Agency canceled its collaboration), broadband-providing satellite services, and nuclear propulsion technology development — without international collaboration. Putin himself has not commented on the future of the International Space Station.
From the perspective of NASA and the United States, Russia’s counter-sanctions and threats have had little short-term impact. NASA announced its intent to continue partnering with Roscosmos on the maintenance of the station shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, and while Russia has symbolically canceled some joint space station experiments in retaliation for Western sanctions, most International Space Station operations are proceeding as normal. This has included (despite breathless articles about possible “stranded” astronauts) the return of U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei to Earth in a Soyuz crew capsule at the end of March and, at least until mid-May when some media outlets reported the cancellation of the agreement, plans to fly a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule later this year. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has consistently characterized Rogozin’s threats as mere bluster and stated that he “see[s] nothing that has interrupted [the] professional relationship” between NASA and Roscosmos in International Space Station operations. As a number of experts have noted, Rogozin’s comments concerning the space station do not signal Russia’s immediate intentions and recognize Roscomos’s obligation to provide at least a year’s advance notice prior leaving the International Space Station partnership — a notification that, to date, has not been provided. Additionally, Rogozin’s media statements are not significantly different from those of Russian government officials made prior to the invasion of Ukraine regarding Russia’s intention to potentially leave the partnership after the 2024 conclusion of the station’s current international operating agreement.
Unfortunately, the short-term effects of the Western sanctions campaign have been far more significant for Europe. The European Space Agency’s decision to cancel its joint projects with Roscosmos effectively ended almost 30 years of space collaboration between the two organizations. In addition to the canceled, suspended, or indefinitely postponed joint civil-space missions, the Russian embargo on Soyuz flights for European payloads has resulted in the cancellation of approximately 16 satellite missions between 2022 and 2024. This has left almost 200 satellites, including several Galileo geo-navigation satellites and a number of other high-profile European satellite missions, without an immediate method of reaching orbit. While a number of launch providers have attempted to adjust their launch schedules and manifests to accommodate these missions, it remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient space on current launches to undertake these missions in the short term. Furthermore, non-space related sanctions, particularly those targeting Russia’s oil, coal, gas, and energy exports, are already causing economic hardship to European economies.
As sanctions and counter-sanctions between the West and Russia proliferate, and as the war in Ukraine grinds on in an ever more brutal fashion, it is difficult to predict exactly what long-terms effects these sanctions will have in the space domain. A number of factors will likely contribute to the long-term effects, including, at a minimum, the length and outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war; whether Western sanctions are lifted when the conflict concludes; and the extent to which Russia is able to evade Western sanctions or find alternative sources of money and materiel, whether by seeking greater engagement with other international partners (China being the primary candidate) or through other means.
First, how will the Russian civil-space program be affected over the long-term by the current sanctions? The Biden administration has insisted that current sanctions will halve Russia’s high-tech imports and radically affect its defense and aerospace industries, particularly over a period of years. Others counter that such export controls are more likely to constitute a short-term “flesh wound” from which Russia will be able to recover over the long-term by shifting to other supply sources. It seems, however, that sanctions are already wreaking havoc within Russia’s industries: The loss of high-tech electronic and computer equipment imports has reportedly forced shutdowns of a number of military manufacturing plants, including tank factories and surface-to-air missiles production facilities. New military systems under development by the Russian defense industry were described as being “hostage to many new technologies and systems” as early as 2019. Now, with the bite of sanctions, it is unclear whether such systems can be produced in sufficient numbers to contribute to Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine. Additionally, reports out of Ukraine indicate that sanctions have already reduced Russian forces to jerry-rigging military equipment with semiconductors and computer chips from household appliances. While nothing has been publicly released concerning the effects of sanctions on Russia’s space activities, the apparent effects of sanctions throughout Russia’s military and technology production do not bode well for the long-term health of the country’s space industries.
Russia’s space program has suffered heavily over the past decade — particularly in the wake of previous Western sanctions imposed after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. As space expert James Clay Moltz notes, since 2014, the Russian space program has “become less innovative and more militarily focused” and its “civil and commercial space technology has failed to keep up with world standards,” already drastically reducing its competitiveness. Even before the present crisis in Ukraine, the French Institute of International Relations theorized that the Russian space program was on a path of significant decline that might not be averted without Russian reengagement with the West and partnership with Europe. Such reengagement now seems impossible, with both the European Space Agency and individual European governments turning back toward the United States for space partnerships. Should these trends continue, Western sanctions and European disengagement may prove devastating to a Russian space program already weakened by pre-2022 sanctions, budget cuts, and aging technology.
With respect to long-term civil-space cooperation between the United States and Russia, there is no immediate threat (despite Rogozin’s bombastic statements) to the International Space Station partnership. However, between Russian officials’ publicly stated intentions to leave the International Space Station sometime in the next several years and the generally deteriorating geopolitical relationship between Russia and the United States, it is by no means clear that civil-space cooperation will continue in a meaningful way after the decommissioning of the space station. Russia has already sought civil-space partnerships with China, signing a five-year space cooperation agreement with the Chinese government and agreeing to jointly construct a lunar research station. A shift by Russia away from civil-space cooperation with the United States and Europe would further solidify the growing perception of “strategic competition” between the West and a Russian-Chinese bloc — a competition already widely seen as existing and growing in the context of military and intelligence-related outer-space operations.
Is Western-Russian Space Cooperation Really Dead?
The Russo-Ukrainian War threatens the relatively cordial post-Cold War outer-space relationship between Russia and the West in ways not seen since the Reagan administration. Continuing sanctions and counter-sanctions, as well as a realignment in civil-space partnerships, portend significant consequences in the space domain. But is space cooperation between Russia and the West truly dead? In the immediate term, at least from the American perspective, the answer is “not yet” — though from a European perspective, collaboration has largely ground to at least a short-term halt. In the longer term, however, it is unclear whether and how Europe will seek to reengage with Roscosmos after the conclusion of the Russo-Ukrainian War, or whether Russia will exhibit a willingness to partner with the United States and the West after the decommissioning of the International Space Station.
There remain significant international security and policy reasons to engage Russia and its space program. Russia’s status as a nuclear power requires consideration in this regard, as does the possibility of reducing the likelihood of wide-ranging competition between Western-aligned and Russian- and Chinese-aligned blocs. Outer-space cooperation has served as a method of reducing terrestrial tensions in the past and has been a welcome conduit for positive partnership and engagement in the modern day. Future civil-space partnerships may continue these positive trends, providing a largely apolitical area of collaboration that can serve as a springboard to addressing more politically charged, terrestrial affairs. Whether a renewal of civil-space cooperation between the West and Russia is possible may, however, depend on the length and extent of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The longer and more brutal the war becomes, the more difficult reengagement with Russia after the war — in space or in other spheres — is likely to be.
Maj. Jeremy Grunert is an officer in the United States Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at the United States Air Force Academy. Grunert is the author of “The ‘Peaceful Use’ of Outer Space?” previously published in War on the Rocks, as well as a number of other articles and publications. This article is written in Maj. Grunert’s personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force.