A Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station takes off in Kazakhstan, March 2016.
A Soyuz spacecraft en route to the International Space Station takes off in Kazakhstan, March 2016.
Shamil Zhumatov / REUTERS

In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, outer space seemed to offer one of the most fruitful arenas for cooperation among Russia, the United States, and the European Union. The management of the International Space Station, the use of Russian-made engines in U.S. Atlas V rockets, and the INTEGRAL space telescope, which is jointly managed by Russian, U.S., and EU scientists, are among the best-known results of this collaboration.

Nevertheless, Russia's state-owned space industry has struggled to stay alive in the global market. Since around 2005, new cooperative ventures have appeared less frequently. Some joint projects have been phased out, and industrial cooperation between Russian space firms and their U.S. and European counterparts has sputtered.

To keep the industry afloat, the Russian government has relied on military space projects and expensive manned space flights, which are not as scientifically productive as the development of new research satellites. Of Russia's 130 satellites, 80 serve military purposes, and manned flights account for more than half of the spending of Russia's civil space program. Space exploration is not a priority for the Kremlin. Indeed, a number of scientific projects that Russia had aimed to complete between 2006 and 2015 have since been postponed.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its aggression against Ukraine over the two years since have made these problems even more difficult for Russia to manage. U.S. and EU sanctions have crippled the Russian space industry by depriving it of the advanced components needed to build many communications and navigation satellites. Yet Russia still sees cooperation in space as a useful foreign policy tool, and despite the recent decline in international collaboration, in the years ahead, it will seek to demonstrate its status as a great power in space, much as it has for decades. 

An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut at a space center near Moscow, September 2010.
An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut at a space center near Moscow, September 2010.
Sergei Remezov / REUTERS

STAR STATUS

Since the early years of the Cold War, Soviet leaders and their Russian successors have used space exploration to legitimize their rule. Cooperation with U.S. and European space agencies, especially on long-term projects, is an especially pressing need for Russian authorities today. It demonstrates Russia's importance in the international system and showcases Moscow's technological prowess.

The International Space Station, which is jointly managed by Canada, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the EU, offers the clearest example of this kind of cooperation. The ISS’ political value for Russia grew briefly between 2003 and 2005, when the space shuttle Columbia disaster made the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft the only way for astronauts to reach the station, and again in the years after 2011, when the U.S. space shuttle program was retired. The Soyuz's centrality to the ISS was the main reason Moscow supported the extension of the station's service life to 2024, despite the fact that the Russian portion of the station does not produce many significant scientific results. 

A similar desire for long-term, sustainable joint space projects guides Russia’s relations with the European Space Agency (ESA). There are two main cases of Russian-European collaboration of this kind. The first is the Russian-French project to send Russian-made Soyuz-2 launch vehicles into orbit from the ESA’s spaceport near the town of Kourou, in French Guiana. The second is Russia's participation in the ESA's ExoMars mission, which will search for signs of life on Mars. Russia will contribute launch vehicles, components for a Mars orbiter, and the descent module that a rover will eventually use to reach the Martian surface in 2020. 

Checking a Soyuz capsule after a landing in central Kazakhstan, March 2015.
Checking a Soyuz capsule after a landing in central Kazakhstan, March 2015.
Vasily Maximov / Pool / REUTERS

IN MOSCOW'S ORBIT

Russia’s scientific and industrial capacities will be limited for the foreseeable future. As a result, in the coming years, Russia will pursue the same kinds of missions it has in the recent past: manned space flights and cooperation with foreign space agencies on low-risk exploration projects. That will be especially important a few years from now, when spacecraft produced by private U.S. firms will likely end Russia’s monopoly on delivering astronauts to the ISS, and after 2024, when the ISS will shut down entirely.

In the near term, Russia aims to assemble international research teams of American, European, and Russian scientists to manage its Spektr-RG and Spektr-UV orbital observatories, which are scheduled for launch in 2017 and 2021 and will scan space for high-frequency electromagnetic waves. Both observatories will use European components that Russia is allowed to import under the current sanctions regime. In fact, Russian scientists plan to use an astrophysical observatory on the ground in Crimea to complement the work done by Spektr-UV in orbit. Among other things, then, cooperation among American, European, and Russian scientists on the project will help publicly legitimize Russia's annexation.

Russia's proposals for the more distant future, after the eventual retirement of the ISS, are more ambitious. They range from the construction of a new space station in low-earth orbit to the unprecedented deployment of an international station that would orbit the moon.

As for Russia's military space program, Russian leaders, like their U.S. counterparts, see the militarization of space as an important issue in bilateral relations. Russia maintains a massive constellation of military satellites, second in size only to that of the United States. Of the satellites, most are dedicated to providing the Russian military with globe-spanning communications capabilities. Since 2014, Moscow has also been experimenting with the orbital maneuvering of military spacecraft. 

The main threat posed by Russia to the United States in space is not the deliberate destruction of satellites operated by Washington or its allies. The number of satellites in orbit and their distance from the earth’s surface render that option impractical. More realistic is that in the event of a conflict, Russia could disrupt the satellite-based networks that are key to the U.S. military's supremacy in communications and intelligence by jamming satellites or destroying ground-based space infrastructure. Troublemaking moves are especially likely if the Kremlin grows more insecure in its relations with the West—for example, if the government’s domestic political position, influence abroad, or economic position declines precipitously. 

Even if ties between Moscow and Washington do not deteriorate more than they have already, by ramping up the pressure on the United States in space, the Kremlin will seek to negotiate the space agenda on its own terms—yet another sign of Russia's quest to broadcast its status as a great power. And just as greater scientific cooperation in space could help prevent the likelihood of military tensions there, increased friction between Russia and the West will set back shared research endeavors, to the detriment of all.

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  • PAVEL LUZIN is a Senior Lecturer at Perm State University, in Russia, a columnist at the Intersection Project, and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.
  • More By Pavel Luzin