1. In the beginning, there was no Sea Launch
  2. Hitting Russia where it hurts
  3. ‘Cancelling’ Russia

Russians have two reasons to be proud: victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, as they call it, and successes in space exploration. And while the Russian myth of the world's ‘second 'army’ has already been debunked, Russian spacecraft are still ‘ploughing the space’, albeit with problems.

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In addition to its ideological significance, space technology is now one of the strategic resources on the battlefield. Therefore, weakening the Russian space industry should be an important priority for the civilised world.

Nataliia Borotkanych, a PhD in History and coordinator of space projects at Noosphere, an NGO focused on promoting STEMS, looks into how effective the sanctions against Russian space industry are and what the West can do to increase their effect.

In the beginning, there was no Sea Launch

The story begins in 2014. The first sanctions against Russian space were imposed after the annexation of Crimea. One of the main targets was electronics, the traditional Achilles' heel of Russian industry.

Other measures were aimed at reducing the dependence of Western countries on the Russian space industry. For instance, the United States initiated the development of a new Vulcan launch vehicle, intended to replace the popular Atlas V rocket, whose first stage uses Russian RD-180 engines.

In addition, the annexation of Crimea effectively buried Sea Launch, a multinational project with a mobile maritime platform for commercial payload launches.

Those first sanctions made it somewhat difficult for the Russian space industry to function, but they certainly did not become a powerful blow that brought Russian space to its knees.

Instead of Western electronics, Russia gradually switched to Indian and Chinese components. Moreover, Western companies continued to actively use Russian launch vehicles to launch satellites, generously paying for Roscosmos' activities.

Soyuz rockets continued to be launched from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, while the European Space Agency (ESA) was actively working with Roscosmos on the ExoMars mission, supposed to search for traces of life on the Red Planet.

Photo via Sea Launch

This dual policy culminated in the signing of a contract for Roscosmos to launch the OneWeb satellite internet system into space – despite Russian intelligence openly claiming that it posed a threat to national security and would be banned from operating in the country.

24 February 2022 was a sobering day for all those who had relied on cooperation with Russia. This time, it took the West very little time to decide on a complete and unconditional break with Russia in space.

It was not without casualties, with OneWeb and ESA suffering the most. The satellite internet system has lost the means of delivering satellites into orbit, and had to ask for help from its competitor, SpaceX.

ESA has lost a significant part of its launch capabilities, so that the ExoMars mission will now be launched in 2028 at best.

Hitting Russia where it hurts

And what about Russia? How badly has its space industry been affected by sanctions – and can we talk about its imminent demise?

The simple answer to this question is as follows: The effect of the sanctions is much stronger than Russia says, but at the same time, ‘the patient is still more alive than dead’. Yes, the war in Ukraine has indeed buried Russia’s many civilian space projects, and ‘reliable’ Russian spacecraft are leaking coolant.

But even after a year of tough sanctions, Russia can still launch military satellites into orbit.

Now, let's take a closer look at all the main vulnerabilities of the Russian space industry and how they can be addressed.

The key is still electronics. Even under the most powerful sanctions, it is unlikely that Russia will completely lose the ability to produce new rockets. After all, there are cases of North Korea and Iran, which still manage to launch missiles under global isolation.

The city of Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo via EPA
Байконур EPA

It is wise to remember that a launch vehicle is simply a tool designed to deliver cargo. And here, the electronics factor is key. Its quality determines how long a new military satellite will operate, how many manoeuvres it can perform, and how good its data will be.

Undoubtedly, the new bans on the supply of electronic components have made it much more difficult for Russia to build its own spacecraft. At the same time, it's no secret that the aggressor country is actively using various ‘grey import’ schemes to circumvent the restrictions.

And there is only one solution to this problem – continuous, systematic work to quickly identify new Russia’s workarounds and eliminate them.

The West must also send an unequivocal ‘don't do it’ signal to all countries that are still willing to trade electronics with Russia to circumvent sanctions.

Of course, even in an ideal scenario, Russia will still receive some chips by smuggling. However, the fewer they are, the more difficult it will be for the aggressor to maintain its military satellite groupings – and the faster they will fail and fall out of orbit.

A good example is the three Russian EMKA reconnaissance satellites launched last year, which failed to perform a single manoeuvre and burned up in the atmosphere just a few weeks after launch.

The next factor is money. Even before the outbreak of the full-scale war, funding for the Russian space programme was being actively reduced. After 24 February, the situation became much worse: Roscosmos has lost almost all international contracts and sources of foreign exchange earnings.

Adding the overall financial situation in Russia with a rapid decline in oil and gas revenues, Russia’s space industry will soon find itself on a starvation diet – perhaps already has.

‘Cancelling’ Russia

At the same time, there are still enough countries on Earth – as a rule, non-democratic regimes – that may be tempted by the opportunity to put cargo into orbit with a Russian rocket. Therefore, the main work on this front should be aimed at strengthening Russia's international isolation.

We need to ensure that autocratic states think twice about whether they should risk getting involved with Russia. Or would it be safer to look for a launch vehicle in another country, cooperation with which would not leave an indelible stain on their reputation?

China is a good example of how this policy works.

Early last year, China was actively talking about its plans to build an international lunar station with Russia, but then stopped.

By the autumn of 2022, there had been no mention of Russian involvement in the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. Apparently, even for China, Russia has become too toxic to mention in the presence of potential space partners.

Another weakness of the aggressor country's space industry is its infrastructure – more specifically the Baikonur space complex in Kazakhstan, still the main centre of Russian space operations.

The recent seizure of Roscosmos property, as well as some statements by the Kazakh authorities, indicate that it is well aware of the danger of having Russian facilities in its territory. This means that Western countries should make every effort to provide security guarantees to Kazakhstan and facilitate the expulsion of Russians from Baikonur as soon as possible.

Of course, even a comprehensive implementation of all the above measures does not guarantee a complete breakdown of the Russian space industry.

But it is at least capable of reducing its role so much that it will cease to be seen as a significant military and political factor.