Russia’s War in Ukraine Reveals More Problems in Space

Early last week, Russia’s new man helming Roscosmos abruptly announced that the space agency would end its participation in running the International Space Station in as little as two years. Such a move would terminate an enduring symbol of international cooperation and effectively end the station’s life prematurely, as it will eventually have to be de-orbited, piece by piece. “We will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision [on] leaving this station after 2024 [has] been made,” he told a state publication.

But it’s not clear how serious Yuri Borisov really is about Russia’s departure coming so soon. Later that week, he clarified that Russia would withdraw from the space station once Roscosmos starts launching modules for a new space station, which he claimed could happen as early as 2028. His comments about leaving the ISS echoed those made by his bombastic predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin, as Russia was battered with international sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine in February—yet did not actually precipitate a withdrawal from the station, which is jointly operated by space agencies from Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada.

“It could be the new guy just showing his loyalty to the one person whose opinion really matters—Putin—indicating he’s going to be as tough as Rogozin had been,” says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado.

Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit research organization based in Pasadena, California, agrees, pointing out that with Russia, actions speak louder than words. There would be dire consequences for Roscosmos if Russia decouples from the ISS too soon, he adds. “If they were to do a near-term disentangling from the ISS, it would be to functionally give up their human spaceflight program. Given the symbolic nature in which Putin sees the space program, it seems unlikely that they would step away from that,Dreier says.

By contrast, NASA’s chief, Bill Nelson, has been clear about the US space agency’s plans for the ISS. He has said that NASA is committed to continuing station operations through 2030, assuming the Russians are still onboard till then. The CHIPS and Science Act, passed by Congress on July 28, officially authorizes NASA to do so. After that point, NASA will be the primary customer for a new commercial space station, which will take over in low Earth orbit.

The future of Russia’s space sector looks bleak due to a drainage of resources, Samson says. Roscosmos has struggled with decreased funding in recent years, and it’s navigating tensions with other space powers thanks to the war in Ukraine and disputes with NATO. Russia is now constrained by sanctions that affect technology imports. The country has lost launch contracts at its Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan. It has lost business with the US, as NASA and its partners’ astronauts can now travel to the ISS on SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft instead of having to book a ride on a Soyuz rocket. The European Space Agency has also cut ties with Roscosmos, most notably on the ExoMars mission, which has been delayed until later this decade.

There’s not much going for Roscosmos at this point other than the ISS—or a replacement to be called the Russian Orbital Service Station, which Borosiv claimed could be developed and launched as early as 2028.

That’s an overoptimistic timeline, Samson and Dreier argue, considering it took more than 12 years for Russia to develop its Nauka ISS module, which launched to the ISS last year. “I don’t see that, considering their funding issues. And Russia’s civil space program has quality control issues and corruption issues as well. I don’t know that they could afford to build their own space station and continue to contribute to the ISS,” Samson says.

China is building its own space station, having launched the country’s second module, Wentian, last week. A third module, Mengtian, is planned for launch in October. Neither Chinese nor Russian officials have given any indication that they will collaborate on that station, which orbits at an inclination that would be difficult to reach from a Russian launch site. China and Russia have agreed, however, to jointly build a research station on the moon in the 2030s.

One of Russia’s biggest investments in space continues to be on the military side. The country has developed, deployed, and even used weapons against spacecraft, with consequences for international space security. Russia has tested anti-satellite missiles, most recently in November 2021, and lasers as well, and it has made use of electronic and cyberweapons against satellites and ground systems. (The US and Chinese militaries are working on similar technologies.)

“In Ukraine, we’ve seen GPS jamming, communications jamming, the jamming of Starlink—that they were able to eventually work around—and the cyberattack of ViaSat ground terminals,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. But considering the relatively low cost of such attacks, so far the Russians haven’t employed as much cyberwarfare as experts anticipated, Samson says.

In any case, the fractious state of affairs ultimately means more risks to spacecraft and the ground infrastructure they depend on, including commercial satellites that have been involved in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Such satellites include US-based satellite imaging companies like Maxar and Planet and radar imagery companies like Capella Space, which can spot military convoys and troop movements. Elon Musk and SpaceX have had no qualms about intervening on Ukraine’s behalf as well by aiding military communications with Starlink. This could be part of a trend, Johnson says; she thinks SpaceX is becoming more like a traditional military contractor in the vein of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, which similarly work with both NASA and the Pentagon. SpaceX has government contracts for launching military satellites and building missile-tracking satellites and is exploring a Pentagon partnership for the space transportation of military supplies.

And when satellite companies become enmeshed in conflicts on the ground, that could have repercussions in space. Militaries can only attack military objectives, not civilian ones, according to the international law of armed conflict. But that won’t stop “dual use” civilian spacecraft like Starlink’s and Maxar’s, along with their ground infrastructure, from becoming potential targets for Russia, if they’re being used for both civilian purposes and military ones in Ukraine, says David Koplow, a Georgetown law professor and author of a recent paper on the law of armed conflict in space.

For decades, Koplow says, the US Defense Department has benefited from contracts with space companies, making some satellites at least part-time military spacecraft, rather than buying their own fleets, the way the Navy has its own ships and the Air Force has its own squadrons. “The consistent policy of the United States has been to mix military and civilian functions on a particular satellite, and I argue that that’s illegal and unwise, as evidenced by circumstances like this, where dual use of the satellite renders it subject to attack,” he says. In his view, Russia could easily and legally attack a broad range of US commercial satellites if they are being used in the conflict.

While geopolitical rivalries have extended into space since the Sputnik era, now, in the aftermath of the ongoing Ukraine conflict, growing international tensions in space extend primarily from Russia, argues Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump administration. “With the exception of the Russians, most countries seem to be on the same page in space. Even in the case of China, we’re obviously concerned about their [anti-satellite weapons]. But diplomatically, we’re not conflicting with anybody that much except for the Russians. They really are kind of isolated right now,” he says.

Even during times of conflict, the International Space Station has served as a bridge between nations and cultures since the late 1990s, with astronauts working together. For now, Russia has agreed to continue crew swaps with the US to the ISS starting in September, with US astronaut Frank Rubio launching to the space station from Kazakhstan and with Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina launching from Florida along with NASA and Japanese astronauts.

Nevertheless, when the station’s lifetime comes to an end—whether that’s in 2028, 2030, or later—this kind of collaboration could end with it. “While it’s been a tremendous achievement that we’ve had humans in orbit continuously for over two decades now thanks to the ISS, and they’ve been able to do a lot of scientific experiments on it and because of it, in my opinion, its biggest legacy is the role it’s been playing as a diplomatic tool,” Samson says. “With one of the partners effectively taking their ball and going home, I think you lose that benefit. And that aspect not being replaced is what worries me the most.”



Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
A password has not been entered
Password generation
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x