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Russia asked NASA to end sanctions to save the ISS, but the West didn’t blink

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin is photographed in October, 2018, after the launch failure of a Soyuz-FG rocket.
Enlarge / Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin is photographed in October, 2018, after the launch failure of a Soyuz-FG rocket.

Alexei Filippov/TASS via Getty Images

For a few weeks now, the chief of Russia’s spaceflight activities has said that the United States and its Western allies must end sanctions on his country by March 31, or face the consequences when it comes to partnering on the International Space Station.

After those sanctions remained in place at the end of March, the director general of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, vowed to issue a response on April 2. True to his word, he did so early on Saturday morning. His full Twitter thread can be found here, but it is fairly simple to summarize: More bluster, more threats, but likely little change.

In his new missive, Rogozin is still demanding “complete and unconditional” end of the Western sanctions, and he is still threatening to end partnership on the International Space Station. Specifically, Rogozin said Roscosmos will soon send “specific proposals” to complete its cooperation on the space station to the Russian government.

This had led to a firestorm of media coverage today saying that Russia will end its cooperation on the International Space Station (see, for example, here and here). Such coverage lacks a fundamental understanding of Dmitry Rogozin and Russia’s approach to spaceflight.

Cooperation on the space station will, of course, end at some point in the future. Some of the hardware has been flying in space for nearly 25 years, and it will eventually age out. And while it is possible that Russia could decide to end cooperation this month, that seems unlikely. Russia is currently committed to operating the station through 2024, and even as the war has raged in Ukraine, there have been in talks about possibly extending operations to 2030.

NASA’s preference is to continue operating the station until 2030, and for reasons that include a desire not to violate international treaties, the United States alongside Europe, Japan, and Canada are unlikely to break the partnership with Russia. That, in effect, leaves the decision to Russia.

Rogozin has been blustering about pulling the plug on the International Space Station almost since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. However he and the thousands of employees at Roscosmos have taken precisely zero concrete actions that would actually initiate that process. Indeed, earlier this week, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth on a Soyuz spacecraft. The operations were entirely nominal, and the relations between Russian and NASA officials professional.

It is possibly that Vladimir Putin could decide, at any moment, that it no longer suits him to participate on the space station. His decision-making process is opaque to Western observers. But this seems improbable, because walking away from the space station would be the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to Russia’s civil space program. And Russians take enormous pride in their space program, going back more than six decades to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. Without active cooperation with Western nations, however, Russia would almost certainly no longer be a space power—it would be the world’s first former space power.

As part of his Twitter message, Rogozin shared letters he had received from the chiefs of other space agencies in response to his demands for an end to sanctions. Of note is a March 30 letter from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, pledging his ongoing support for the space station, but reiterating that the sanctions will not end. Nelson is not negotiating from a point of weakness here. The United States has a vibrant commercial space industry, which will prosper even without the space station. Nelson, too, knows that NASA likely could take steps to save the US segment of the space station and keep it flying even if Russia abruptly pulls out.

However, Nelson’s letter holds no bluster or threats. Rather, he offers a fig leaf. While the United States will not lift its sanctions, Nelson writes, if the Russian space industry needs Western components to support the flights of Russian Soyuz or Progress vehicles to the space station, NASA will work to facilitate such technology transfers. “Sustaining safe and successful ISS operations remains a priority for the United States,” Nelson writes.

One can probably safely surmise the Russians feel the same way.

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