Russia's invasion of Ukraine has consequences in many sectors, including one that will likely play a crucial geopolitical role in the future: space.
Russia's recently launched invasion of Ukraine has turned the international community upside down lately, with changes to the geopolitical landscape the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. But there is one element that has been relatively pushed into the background, even though it is full of concrete implications on a global scale: the impact of the crisis on aerospace.
The ISS in turmoil
The most obvious problem that has been highlighted by this situation is perched about 400km above the ground: it is the International Space Station. As everyone knows, this is the result of collaboration between different countries, and Russia is one of the major players alongside the United States. It is indeed to Russian engineers that we owe a good part of the structure itself as well as many scientific equipment.
It also takes care of a considerable part of the maintenance. It is, for example, the Russian contingent that takes care of the trajectory corrections that allow the station to remain in stable orbit. Without these routine operations, the station would gradually drift towards the ground and eventually crash into Earth…a situation that Roscosmos is well aware of.
Its sulphurous president Dmitry Rogozine did not hesitate to use this element as leverage. In a passive aggressive tirade typical of Kremlin rhetoric at the moment, he also issued a thinly veiled threat to the future prospects of the ISS…
“If you block cooperation with us, who is going to prevent the ISS from drifting out of orbit and crashing in Europe or the United States? There is also the chance of a 500 ton object crashing somewhere else. Are you sure you want to threaten India or China like this?” he blurts out before concluding in an inquisitive tone reminiscent of Putin's recent nuclear threats. "The ISS does not fly over Russia," he recalls. “All the risk is on you. Are you sure you are ready?” Decidedly, the atmosphere must be really special on board the station…
Even the ISS, this totem of international cooperation perched several hundred kilometers above sea level, is not immune to the fallout from the current situation. © Norbert Kowalczyk
A new era of “space cold war”?
And it's not necessarily a bluff. Knowing the Kremlin's love for shows of force, it is not impossible that Roscosmos really plans to arbitrarily offload all its obligations on board the ISS, even if this would not necessarily result in the loss of space. 'ISS contrary to what Rogozin asserts.
Moreover, Russia has already begun its gradual withdrawal from the ISS, and is already preparing for the next steps. She is now focusing on her other own projects, including those she shares with the Chinese government. In a sense, the invasion of Ukraine therefore accelerated the beginning of a form of “space cold war”, with a Western bloc on one side and a Sino-Russian bloc on the other.
Because even if it seeks to restore its image, Roscomsos remains in a very complicated situation. The agency is at the same time lagging behind technologically, institutionally failing because of a systemic problem of corruption, and especially battered economically. And the recent sanctions are not going to fix anything at this level. Without the international cooperation in which it has been part of until now, it will simply be unable to carry out its objectives.
To survive, Roscosmos will therefore have only one solution: to subsist on a Chinese infusion within the framework of their new partnership. A situation which could, here again, have considerable geopolitical consequences, even if they are still difficult to identify today. For its part, NASA plays appeasement and ensures that it wishes to continue cooperation at this level. In any case, we will probably not see new Russian-American programs flourish for many years…
A Russian Soyuz. © NASA – Roscosmos
The withdrawal of the Soyuz, a blow for Europe
Roscosmos also said it would cease all operations in collaboration with ESA in French Guiana. This implies the withdrawal of all the equipment and the 87 Russian engineers who are an integral part of the routine on the Kourou spaceport, a privileged launch site for French and European aerospace.
Unlike many other primarily symbolic sanctions, this one will have very concrete consequences, starting with basic logistics. Indeed, ESA has been lagging behind when it comes to producing its own vehicles for years. Today, it relies heavily on the famous Soyuz, the indefatigable Russian vehicles which are still regularly used as shuttles to space. And it will now have to give up on it following the Kremlin's announcements. In the immediate term, this means that it will potentially be necessary to give up on a substantial part of the calendar. In 2022 alone, eight European missions relied directly on the Soyuz, including the three planned by Arianespace in Kourou.
An already disabling setback in normal times, but all the more problematic in the current context. Indeed, even if it looks good, the French and European aerospace industry remains mired in a complicated transition between two generations of launchers, and the way out of the crisis promises to be complicated.
Not only has the development of Ariane 6 accumulated a phenomenal delay, but it has also become apparent in recent years that it will not be able to meet the long-term needs of the agency. Indeed, about ten years ago, the Ariane Space staff did not wish to bet on a reusable launcher, considered too fanciful at the time.
Today, at a time when the entire aerospace industry has lined up behind SpaceX and swears by this concept, the institution is biting its fingers. This “poor strategic choice”, according to Bruno Le Maire, Europe will try to remedy it with its future Maïa launcher, but the road remains long; for the time being, Europe is still far from being self-sufficient in this area, and the withdrawal of the Soyuz could well illustrate the extent of this relative dependence.
A game of musical chairs with serious consequences
And that's probably just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, aerospace is a sector where cooperation plays a major role; if certain links are broken, then the rest of the actors are bound to engage in a vast game of musical chairs to fill in the gaps. In China, space is already one of the absolute priorities of Xi Jinping's policy, and it can already be said that the current situation clearly constitutes an opportunity to place its pawns aggressively.
But the situation could also benefit other actors. One thinks, for example, of India, whose space industry, which is still in its infancy today, could play a determining role in the future. But above all, it is the private players who could do well. One can, for example, imagine that SpaceX offers its services to fill the gaping void left by the withdrawal of the Soyuz.
As it stands, it is still difficult to reach clear conclusions; instead of drawing plans on the comet, we will have to wait for the situation in Ukraine to stabilize. Once the dust settles, we could witness a rapid transformation of spatial geopolitics that will have to be monitored very closely, since it could well condition a large part of international relations in the decades to come.