Russia Says it’ll Quit the International Space Station Over Sanctions. Also, Russia Says a lot of Stuff That Doesn’t Happen

When Russia sent its armed forces into Ukraine amidst accusations of Nazism and NATO aggression, it left most of its credibility behind. What’s left of its credibility is in shreds as Russia lurches towards pariah status. That’s what happens when you unleash your military on your peaceful neighbour and when the body count grows alongside the rubble piles that used to be Ukrainian cities.

Now Russia seems to be “threatening” to end its participation in the ISS over economic sanctions the world has imposed on them. Will they end their involvement in the ISS? Does anybody care anymore? Does anybody want them to stay? Will we see a line-up of diplomats asking them to reconsider.

Russia may be low-hanging fruit in western media right now, but the Russian government’s public statements still deserve scrutiny. According to some reports, Russia has decided that the rest of the world no longer gets to enjoy its involvement when it comes to the ISS. Russia’s been saying this for a while now, and maybe this time, they mean it.

The latest “threat” to abandon the ISS comes from Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos. Rogozin is deeply embedded in Russian politics and its overlord, Vladimir Putin. Rogozin was formerly the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in charge of the defence industry and was also Russia’s ambassador to NATO. So when he speaks, he speaks in concert with Putin and his regime.

Russia is no longer involved with the European Space Agency in the Exo-Mars Rover mission. Germany won’t cooperate with Russia anymore in the e-ROSITA mission. Commercial customers have cancelled launches at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Russia is refusing to sell rocket engines. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has made a mess of all of these space-related activities. Will the same thing happen to the ISS?

Russia’s chatter and threats over the ISS go back to shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, and are a response to the West’s sanctions imposed on Russia. When Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, American astronaut Mark Vande Hei was onboard the ISS and scheduled to return to Earth on a Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft alongside two Russian cosmonauts. The situation was concerning, though at the time NASA dismissed any specific concerns around astronauts and cosmonauts that were on the ISS. Vande Hei and the cosmonauts returned to Earth without incident.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is seen outside the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft after he landed with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is seen outside the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft after he landed with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Dimitry Rogozin’s current statement about abandoning the ISS came in late April. Russian state news agencies quoted Rogozin as saying, “The decision has been taken already, we’re not obliged to talk about it publicly. I can say this only — in accordance with our obligations, we’ll inform our partners about the end of our work on the ISS with a year’s notice.” Tass and RIA Novosti reported these comments.

Many nations are involved with the ISS, but Russia and the USA are the two primary partners. They’re geopolitical rivals but have a long cooperative relationship over the ISS that’s inconsistent with their political relationship. There’s been tension between both nations in the past, and the ISS has been a bit of a rhetorical football. Is this the latest installment of the political back and forth?

NASA administrator Bill Nelson doesn’t seem overly concerned. In an interview with CNBC in April, Nelson said, “The cosmonauts and the astronauts are getting along as usual. Today marks a significant event because three cosmonauts will launch on a Soyuz from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan to the International Space Station. And the cooperation in civil space, as opposed to military space, that cooperation continues, and we expect it to continue.”

None of the tension between Russia, the USA, and the ISS has anything to do with Russian cosmonauts themselves or any of the scientific, engineering, or other professional personnel at Roscosmos. Rogozin is a Putin mouthpiece, and this appears to be entirely political.

In another interview with the Associated Press, Nelson said, “That’s just Dmitry Rogozin. He spouts off every now and then. But at the end of the day, he’s worked with us. The other people that work in the Russian civilian space program, they’re professional. They don’t miss a beat with us, American astronauts and American mission control.”

But like many statements coming from Russia these days, it’s worth digging deeper. As it turns out, Russia is due to be finished with the ISS soon anyway. The current international agreement to run the ISS ends in 2024. So, in this case, Rogozin gets to bluster away and hint at leaving the ISS, even though all they have to do is not be part of the next agreement. So Russia’s threat to leave the ISS might not really be much of a threat at all.

Like in a lot of other areas, Russia doesn’t seem to have too much room left to maneuver. When the US retired the space shuttles in 2011, NASA relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts back and forth to the ISS. But now SpaceX can transport crew back and forth between Earth and the ISS. Where does that leave Russia and their veiled threats?

The International Space Station stretches out in an image captured by astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly-around in November 2021. (NASA Photo)
The International Space Station stretches out in an image captured by astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly-around in November 2021. (NASA Photo)

The ISS is made up of two primary modules, the United States Orbital Segment (USOS) and the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS.) The ROS is responsible for Guidance, Control, and Navigation. It’s not clear what would happen if Russia were to withdraw from the ISS, while the US has made it clear that they’d like to continue operating the ISS until 2030.

One of Russia’s problems is that part of Putin’s legitimacy rises from Russia’s international status. And the Russian space program is an important part of Russia’s international status. Can they afford to threaten to abandon the ISS?

Does anyone care anymore? Or is Russia only threatening to further isolate itself and cement its status as a pariah?

At some point, this war will end. All wars do. Will NASA, the ESA, and other space agencies welcome Russia back with open arms when it comes to cooperation in space?

Russian threats don’t seem to carry much weight right now. Their word doesn’t mean much either, since they keep agreeing to civilian evacuations in Ukraine then attacking the evacuation routes.

Elon Musk is one of the latest people to face Russian threats. Reports say that Rogozin threatened to hold Musk accountable for making his Starlink technology available to Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

Musk seems unconcerned with Rogozin’s threats and brushed them off.

Maybe their threats mean nothing anymore and the rest of the world will just move on without Russia. Elon Musk certainly isn’t bothered by Rogozin’s threats.

Unfortunately, the back and forth in the media and on Twitter, and the threats Rogozin repeatedly issues, are accompanied by more than just words. Russia’s armed forces are killing Ukrainian civilians in a wanton display of aggression and disdain and there seems to be no end in sight.

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