Russia’s Ukraine invasion has escalated a brewing battle over space
A 57-second video posted by the Russian government last month caught the attention of scientists and diplomats, but not in a way that inspired optimism about the future of global cooperation in outer space.
In it, Russian cosmonauts floated about the International Space Station, hugging and waving goodbye to an American astronaut. Then they entered their portion of the complex and sealed airlock doors behind them. With the video blasting a Russian song, “Farewell,” CGI took over and depicted the cosmonaut’s segment detaching from the station and drifting away (to the applause of Russian ground controllers).
The dark yet jaunty satirical video, depicting what would be the certain demise of the station, presaged more serious threats to an endeavor that has come to symbolize post-Cold War cooperation in space.
It is also a further sign that friction with the Kremlin, most recently aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has seeped into space, exacerbating tensions over the rules of behavior there and halting negotiations over space weapons at a time when the battlegrounds of war are moving to the edges of Earth’s atmosphere.
“The whole world is sort of readjusting to this whole notion of not just competition, but possible and even unintentional confrontation with other big powers” over how they use space, said Jessica West, a senior researcher with Project Ploughshares, a peace research group based in Canada.
Space has long been a barometer of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Cold War competition pushed Moscow and Washington toward new human feats in the 1960s, including the U.S. moon landing in 1969. Anxiety over President Reagan’s “Star Wars” defensive weapons program drove arms negotiations in the 1980s that presaged the end of the Soviet Union.
The 1998 space station agreement — which also includes the European Union, Japan and Canada — signaled a new era of shared advancement in the post-Cold War period. For more than two decades, the jointly operated station has been spinning around Earth.
That space détente was waning long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and the U.S. and its allies targeted Moscow’s space industry in a raft of economic sanctions. For two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for an aggressive expansion of his country’s space weapons program.
American officials have alleged, starting in 2009, that the Kremlin was developing anti-satellite missiles and more recently an anti-satellite mobile laser.
Russia launched what it described as an inspector satellite in 2017, prompting deep skepticism from American officials over what they labeled the craft’s “abnormal behavior,” suggesting it may also have a military use. Two years later, Russia placed a satellite within close range of a U.S. spy satellite, prompting concerns of an unintentional confrontation between the two military powers.
In November, Russia tested a missile that struck a satellite and blasted it into more than 1,500 large pieces of debris, any chunk of which could doom manned and unmanned commercial and military spacecraft, including the crew of the space station, which was forced to take shelter.
The U.S. and its allies sharply criticized Russia over the test, with Vice President Kamala Harris calling it an “irresponsible act [that] endangered the satellites of other nations as well as the astronauts on the International Space Station.”
Meanwhile, the Trump and Biden administrations have ratcheted up efforts to counter competition from Russia and China in space. This was underscored by Trump’s decision to start a new branch of the military, the Space Force.
The new military branch is one of his few legacies that Biden has embraced, with the White House submitting a recent budget request of $24.5 billion for the Space Force, a bump of about 40% over the prior year. That’s almost as much as the $26 billion Biden requested for NASA, which predates Space Force by more than 60 years.
Those lingering tensions have complicated attempts to rewrite international rules on space debris, and the invasion of Ukraine has led U.S. officials to put on ice any direct talks between Washington and Moscow over space-related issues.
“We see no need for those discussions while they are in conflict with the Ukrainians,” Eric Desautels, acting deputy assistant secretary of State for emerging security challenges and defense policy, said in a recent interview hosted by the National Security Space Assn., a nonprofit that encourages cooperation between government and industry.
Desautels said that Russia and China would like a future treaty that constrains the U.S. from placing space-based missile defenses in orbit. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is defining defensive weapons versus those with offensive capabilities. The U.S. argues that commercial actors could be caught up in more restrictive rules, even if their work lacks a military intent.
Complicating potential negotiations are a raft of economic sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine war. The U.S. has taken intentional aim at the Russian space industry, with Biden vowing on the day of the invasion that U.S. sanctions were designed, in part, at degrading “their aerospace industry, including their space program.”
The economic crackdown against Russia has prompted a series of threats from its space officials. The head of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted on April 2 in Russian that “the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions.”
Even before the Ukraine invasion, Moscow had indicated that it may leave the partnership in the next few years — citing safety concerns with aging metal — as it signs new agreements with China on space exploration and lunar research. The station, which has also become a rental hub for billionaire space tourists, is set to retire by 2030.
Zhanna Malekos Smith, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia has created “strategic fog” with its mixed signals over the space station pact. But she pointed to signs of hope, including the March 30 return from the station of American astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who traveled back to Kazakhstan with two cosmonauts — Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov — in a Russian capsule.
When Shkaplerov handed control of the station to astronaut Thomas Marshburn a day earlier, he said that whatever problems existed on Earth — “in orbit, we are like one crew.”
West, the researcher with Project Ploughshares, said the invasion of Ukraine has accelerated and reframed many of the conversations around the militarization of space, including the interplay between civilian and government interests. Satellites, in particular, connect so much of the modern world while helping militaries coordinate troop movements and pinpoint missile strikes.
It’s a dramatic change in mindset compared with a ground war, where “you’re either in a war zone or you’re not,” she said.
She pointed out that other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, India, China, Russia and Japan, have moved toward creating more formalized space commands, like Space Force, a recognition that the battlefield has shifted.
They are all coming to the conclusion that space is not just for exploration. It’s also a new front line.