Are Russia’s Threats to Withdraw From the International Space Station Actually Real This Time?

The International Space Station agreement with Russia is due to end by 2024 but will Roscosmos go with US’s proposed 2030 plan?
International Space Station

Much press has been made recently about Russia’s announcements and threat to terminate their part in maintaining the International Space Station (ISS). 

Contrary to popular opinion, Russia’s decision to withdraw from the International Space Station mission isn’t all to do with Ukraine. Ask Logsdon, a space historian and policy analyst at George Washington University, who says that Russia’s pullout of the ISS mission is “just one more step in a relationship that is already tense.” He went on to say, “Of course, the invasion of Ukraine doesn’t help.

1024px ISS 32 Russian EVA12
Russian International Space Station module by NASA

According to Logsdon, Russia has probably been making alternative backup plans to using the International Space Station for years, just like the US hopes private contractors will meet their space requirements when the ISS is disbanded.

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It is important to keep the perspective that the International Space Station agreement was set to end anyway in 2024. If Russia honors its commitments to the mission until 2024, saying that it will leave the project by then, Russia is not doing anything wrong.

NASA has already conducted a feasibility study into how to crash the ISS safely. It is a relatively recent development that the US wanted to extend the ISS mission until 2030. By extending the life of the ISS until 2030, private companies in the US will have more time to develop the skills they need to run microgravity platforms.

It was the White House in December 2018 that decided to make plans to keep the International Space Station orbiting lab running until 2030. NASA is committed to keeping the ISStation running safely through 2030 and is working with partners to make that happen.

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Mutual scientific goals are a driving force for cooperation between nations

The International Space Station has been a tremendously crucial global endeavor and one of the first great international alliances. From the beginning, scientific achievement has been the driving force behind this relationship. 

View of the ISS taken during Crew 2 flyaround ISS066 E 081311
View of the International Space Station by NASA/Crew-2

It has been more than simply a means of sending a few more people into space; it has brought together teams of individuals who do not normally interact. 

The International Space Station mission has brought benefits to the countries involved, including enhancements to the quality of life in highly remote locations and to us all in general.

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Since the inception of the International Space Station, Roscosmos, the Russian state-owned space agency, has been a vital part of the ISS mission. Roscosmos is in charge of the essential propulsion control systems aboard the International Space Station (ISS). These systems ensure that the ISS remains in its intended orbit even when the Earth’s gravitational pull gradually brings it closer to the atmosphere. Roscosmos has been a critical partner in the ISS for many years, acting as the main contractor on the station and managing Russia’s scientific research on board. Russia didn’t build the ISS but is an integral part of the project with the U.S. and other partners.

Could a new chief of Roscosmos improve Russian relationships soured by the war in Ukraine?

Dmitry Rogozin has been chief of Roscosmos since Putin selected him in May 2018. Recently fired in July, Rogozin has always been a colorful representative of Russian interests.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Rogozin was known for his public spats with International Space Station partners.

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Elon Musk, the founder of US company SpaceX, has always been quick to capitalize on the publicity that Rogozin had created. April 2014, Rogozin tweeted, “After looking at the sanctions against our space industry, I think the US should use a trampoline to get their astronauts to the International Space Station.” After Crew Dragon Demo-2 was successfully launched on May 31, 2020, Musk, founder of SpaceX, said, “The trampoline is working.”

When Dmitry Rogozin was in charge of Roscosmos, he warned that Western sanctions against Russia, some of which were put in place before Moscow invaded Ukraine, could stop Russian spacecraft from servicing the ISS. The 500-ton structure could “fall down into the sea or onto land,” but unlikely in Russia, warned Rogozin. Again, Musk was quick to capitalize. Musk was quick to offer the services of SpaceX to Keep the International Space Station Flying.

It would appear that Western lead sanctions are hurting Russia’s relationship with the countries collaborating on the International Space Station mission. The sanctions may also affect Russia’s ability to maintain and service the International Space Station as it has done in the past.

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Since the war in Ukraine, Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos in recent months, has been portrayed as antagonistic toward Western space agency partners. Rogozin would make controversial public statements, some of which were about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Rogzonin’s behavior toward international colleagues has become more political and less professional, allowing Russian cosmonauts on board the International Space Station to fly the flags of two separatist territories in eastern Ukraine that Russia supports. 

Rogozin also antagonized NASA, suggesting that the United States Should Use Broomsticks Instead of Russian Rockets. His statement caused much amusement, with commentators suggesting the U.S. can do better than rely on outdated Russian rocket technology. Rather than being a show of Russian strength, Rogozin’s threat had quite the opposite effect on widespread social media.

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Rogozin, who often posts on social media about his support for the Russian army in Ukraine, has strong views about the politics of Ukraine are well documented on Wikipedia. In 2008 he was the Russian ambassador to NATO, a job he got from Medvedev and Putin. As Russia’s representative to NATO, he was very against Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. After the two countries were turned down for the NATO Membership Action Plan, he said, “They won’t invite these bankrupt, scandalous regimes to join NATO, especially since important partnerships with Russia are at stake.” Some Ukrainian and Georgian officials criticized him for his words. The envoy was also shocked by Rogozin’s use of slang words.

One thing is clear Rogozin, since the war in Ukraine, has become antagonistic towards Western space agency partners.

In July, Russia decided to fire Rogozin and replace him with Yury Borisov. Russia needed a more levelheaded representative for Roscosmos, or at least a representative that doesn’t continuously embarrass them, escalate international outrage, or make Russia the butt of technology jokes.

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Many people have become concerned that if the Russian government carries through on its threat to withdraw from the International Space Station, it will send the world into “a new Cold War.” With the appointment of Yury Borisov, Russia’s new chief of Roscosmos, people have been waiting to see what will happen next in the relationship between Russia and its involvement with the ISS mission. It appears Borisov has just answered that question.

In the middle of July, Borisov stated that Russia would fulfill all of its obligations to its partners in the ISS but that the decision to leave the space station after 2024 had been decided.

From the Russian side, it doesn’t look like there will be a reversal of the decision for Russia to leave the ISS in 2024. But should his answer be taken at face value?

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According to space.com, some experts say Russia still has a chance to stay in the ISS program after 2024 if it wants to. 

If you listen to Logsdon, Russia’s decision not to commit further to the International Space Station mission means it is increasingly getting ready to leave the station by 2024. Logsdon believes that Russia’s announcement was a statement of its plan to leave the ISS partnership and put its people and money into building an independent space station, which might be at this point only a “paper station” in a draft. However, what direction Russia takes next may be a surprise to everyone as Russia strengthens its ties with China and collaborates on a joint Moon base project.

Robyn Gatens, the ISS director at NASA headquarters, also thinks Russia might be making plans for a space station to come after the ISS, similar to how NASA is working on a commercial space station. Gatens said, “I think the Russians, like us, are thinking about what’s next for them.”

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Bill Nelson, in charge of NASA, said that NASA has not yet received a formal notice of withdrawal from Roscosmos. Although Roscosmos hasn’t submitted an official withdrawal yet, under its previous leader, Dmitry Rogozin, the space agency made many threatening comments about leaving the ISS partnership.

Why Russia’s threat to leave the ISS are empty threats

If US policy advisors are correct, it may well turn out that Russia’s threats to leave the ISS mission should not be taken overly seriously. Russia may find it more convenient to stay in the extended ISS program to avoid dereliction of duty to Russia’s space requirements until Russia has a suitable alternative space station.

US policy advisors who are doubtful that Russia means what it says can quote longtime Russian space news reporters Anatoly Zak and Casey Dreier, a spokesperson for the space advocacy group The Planetary Society.

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Anatoly Zak said on Twitter that the phrase “after 2024” was so vague that it didn’t mean much. Zak wrote that “after 2024” can mean almost any date. “NASA probably has nothing to worry about until at least 2030, or as long as the 2000-launched Zvezda service module keeps working.”

1024px ISS Zvezda module
ISS Zvezda module by NASA

Casey Dreier was also skeptical about the end of Russian cooperation with the International Space Station. “This story has happened to us many times before. I’m not sure I trust any quick changes, “stated Dreier, the nonprofit society’s leader, in a tweet.

Yury Borisov is an interesting choice of successor

According to numerous news outlets, Yury Borisov has been appointed as Dmitry Rogozin’s replacement. Yury Borisov now heads Roscosmos, the Russian state-owned space agency.

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Yury Ivanovich Borisov is a prominent figure in Russian politics. He served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia from 2012 to 2018.

Similar to the exiting space chief Rogozin, the new space chief Borisov has much experience in the politics of Russia’s defense. He previously held the Deputy Minister of Defense position. He was awarded the Third Degree Order for Service to the Homeland in the Armed Forces of the USSR for his contributions to the Soviet military. He even attended the Kalinin Suvorov Military School, and in 1978, he received his diploma from Radioelectronics Higher Command School. In the 1980s, he attended Moscow State University’s Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics to pursue studies in mathematics, and he received his degree from that institution in 1985.

Not only was Borisov adept at military politics at a ministerial level, but he also served in the armed forces of both the Soviet Union and Russia concurrently for a total of twenty years, beginning in 1978 and ending in 1998. Borisov was eventually promoted to Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation on November 12, 2012, per a Presidential Decree. Before this promotion, he served as Russia’s Military-Industrial Commissioner from March 2011 until that month.

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Russia’s choice of Yury Borisov, an experienced defense minister, to lead Roscosmos sends a clear statement to the world that Russia is also prioritizing its ability for military space projects.

NASA isn’t changing course, and efforts are being made with Moscow

At the conference, NASA’s ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said they were confident about the extension. Montalbano said on stage, “We’re going all the way to 2030.” “Anyone who thinks there is a different plan is mistaken. We’ll be there in 2030.”

Montalbano also said that the ISS partnership has had “challenges.” However, he gave examples of how cooperative operations are still going on. He said he was in Moscow last week as part of a deal to let Russian cosmonauts fly on American commercial planes in exchange for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for U.S. astronauts.

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Europe, Japan, and Canada are all on board with the proposed extension until 2030. However, Russia, a significant partner of the ISS, is not. 

In terms of how the International Space Station is built, this is a big deal. NASA has said that the Russian and American parts of the ISS greatly depend on each other. For example, the US provides power, and the Russians have propulsion for orbital maneuvers. There is a lot to figure out.

The departing comments of Rogozin suggesting that the U.S. use trampolines and broomsticks will be a sticking point in the future as NASA and Musk figure out how to run things in space without Russia’s support. The best hope for the ISS mission may still yet be that Borisov does not lead Russia out of the project before all countries involved in the ISS project are ready to finish the mission. 

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Featured image credit: International Space Station by NASA