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What Russia’s ISS Withdrawal Means for Space Power Configurations

04 Aug 2022
By Dr Svetla Ben-Itzhak
The International Space Station in 2009. Source: NASA, Flickr,

The International Space Station (ISS) has long been a symbol of international cooperation. Russia’s departure signals a new era of international dynamics in space.

In July 2022, Russia announced that it would leave the ISS in 2024. This was not a surprise. Back in 2015, Russia said it intended to depart the ISS within ten years. A symbol of post-Cold War reconciliation, the station has linked Washington and Moscow even when relations between the two nations frayed. The ISS has become a bedrock of international cooperation, welcoming 251 astronauts and space tourists from 20 different countries over its 24 years in orbit. Does Russia’s announced departure from the ISS mean an end to international space cooperation? I argue that, rather than an end, Russia’s actions point to shifting space power configurations that mark a new era for international dynamics in space.

Russia’s Departure and the Future of the International Space Station

As Russia has contributed financially and operationally to the ISS, both areas must be addressed to secure continuous ISS functioning.

Financially, the ISS is the most expensive object in orbit ever constructed. The ISS cost more than US $150 billion to develop and build, with the United States covering most of that bill ($58.7 billion) and Russia ($12 billion), Europe ($5 billion), Japan ($5 billion), and Canada ($2 billion) also contributing. Given that NASA pays for most of the ISS running costs, spending about $4 billion a year, it should not be too difficult to cover en group Russia’s financial portion.

Operationally, things are a little more complicated. The International Space Station is a modular space station that consists of 17 distinct pressurised modules: six Russian modules (Zarya, Zvezda, Poisk, Rassvet, Nauka, and Prichal), eight US modules (BEAM, Leonardo, Harmony, Quest, Tranquility, Unity, Cupola, and Destiny), two Japanese modules (the JEM-ELM-PS and JEM-PM) and a European module (Columbus). The Russian Orbital Segment – which includes all ISS components made in and operated by Russia’s space agency Roscosmos – handles guidance, navigation, and propulsion for the entire station. Propulsion is critical as it is used for station reboost, altitude control, debris avoidance manoeuvres, and eventual deorbit operations. When it departs, Russia will detach its modules, which means that the ISS will lose its propulsion and manoeuvrability capabilities.

To keep the space station in orbit until its definitive demise in 2031, the 14 remaining ISS state participants ‒ the US, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries ‒ have three main options. First, they could replace some of the Russian modules. This very costly enterprise may not be warranted as the ISS is expected to stay in orbit for only six more years post-Russia’s departure. Second, some remaining modules could be repurposed to fulfil the needed functions. While possible, this could be potentially very complex and expensive. Finally, ISS participants could work with commercial companies to equip the space station with propulsion and manoeuvrability capabilities. SpaceX has already offered to help and NASA is working with several companies to develop future stations and commercial destinations in space. The third option, while also costly, is most likely as commercial space services could help the ISS reach a dignified end and be reused in future space missions.

Russia’s ISS Departure and the Future of Space Power Configurations

Russia’s departure from the ISS signals that the nature of international cooperation in space is changing. This metamorphosis is marked by two main developments: the proliferation of space actors and the formation of “space blocs.”

First, more and more countries and companies are participating in space travel and exploration. In the past, space was the exclusive prerogative of a small number of states. Today, 75 countries have established official state space agencies, a dozen more operate satellites in various orbits, and a growing number of commercial actors participate in various aspects of space travel and exploration. This proliferation of state and non-state actors in space means that the number of potential partners for space travel and exploration have significantly expanded. The increased number of commercial space companies means that space has become more accessible, in terms of cost, opportunities, and services.

Second, despite the proliferation of commercial space actors, states continue to define the rules in space. The statist nature of the current system in space is evidenced in international space law that gives states full responsibility, liability, and ownership of any commercial entity and object in space. States, however, no longer operate exclusively solo in space, as was the norm in the past, but tend to come together and form what I call “space blocs.” I use this term to refer to groupings of states that share similar affinities on the ground and pursue shared missions in space. The European Space Agency, established in 1975, could be considered one of the earliest space blocs.

The formation rate of space blocs has intensified over the last few years. Newly formed space blocs include the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization in 2005 (eight states led by China), the Arab Space Coordination Group in 2019 (11 Middle Eastern states led by the UAE), the Latin American Caribbean Space Agency in 2021 (seven Latin American states led by Argentina), the African Space Agency in 2019 (55 African Union member states), the Artemis Accords in 2020 (21 states led by the US), and the Sino-Russian space bloc since 2019.

Space blocs pursue various missions ranging from using space capabilities to exert influence on the ground to planning off-world human-manned outposts on the Moon and beyond. For instance, the Artemis Accords and the Sino-Russian bloc aim to reach the South Pole of the Moon around 2026 and construct research stations on the surface, in orbit, or both.

Partly in response to sanctions, Russia has recently moved to collaborate more closely with China on several space projects. This rapprochement echoed the sentiment expressed by the former head of Roscosmos, Dimitry Rogozin, “Russia will work with partners with whom they may have been initially reticent to work with and will do so openly with any country that does not fear US sanctions.” A series of events led to such a shift. Western countries discontinued several space projects with Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Germany stopped cooperating on the joint ISS scientific Icarus project, and ESA terminated the joint ESA-Russia rover “ExoMars” mission that was supposed to launch at the end of September 2022.

For its part, Russia withdrew all its scientists from the French equatorial spaceport in Guiana and sought to increase its cooperation with China. Russia helped China to develop the radioisotope generator for its lunar rover and hopes that China will reciprocate by supplying Russia with micro radio electronics. Russia aims for larger cooperative space ventures with China that include the construction of a human-crewed lunar research station on the Moon’s South Pole. Russia’s departure from the ISS could solidify, the Sino-Russian space bloc as Russia continues to cut ties with other spacefaring countries.

Looking Toward the Future

Russia’s announcement that it would leave the International Space Station reflects a global shift in power dynamics in space. The new power distribution in space is being defined by two key developments: the proliferation of space actors and an increased formation of space blocs through which like-minded states pursue specific space missions. Both have led to unprecedented growth of space activities: more space stations are to be built, several missions to the Moon and Mars are being planned, and techniques for extracting celestial resources are being developed.

When the current phases of space exploration and expansion approach completion, a phase of space exclusion may follow. Space blocs may compete for control over limited resources in space or on celestial bodies. Historical precedents have shown that exclusion and rigidity of alliances have often coincided with increased incidences of conflict. So long as space bloc formations remain flexible and open to all, cooperation in space will flourish, and humanity can remain optimistic about the incredible opportunities that this new era of space exploration brings.

Dr Svetla Ben-Itzhak* is an Assistant Professor of Space Seminar and International Security at Air University with the West Space Seminar, Air War College.

*Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Defense or of any organisation, the author is affiliated with, including the Air University, Air War College, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Space Force.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.