Failed Space Launch Illuminates Russia’s Multiplying Misfortunes

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 145

(Source: Wired)

The booster malfunction in the third minute of the Soyuz MC-10 rocket launch last Thursday (October 11) avoided tragedy. Though they did not reach orbit, Cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin and astronaut Nick Hague landed safely on the ground (TASS, October 11). But it certainly represented another bad break for Russia’s space program. It also added to the chain of international and domestic setbacks Russia keeps generating for itself. Embarrassing blunders of military intelligence (GRU) operatives have exposed Russia to the pressure of new sanctions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 7). Clumsy diplomatic posturing has raised the prospect of expulsion from the Council of Europe—or of Russia’s pre-emptive exit (Kommersant, October 12). The Constantinople Patriarchate has proceeded with granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox churches against fierce objections from the Russian patriarchate (Novaya Gazeta, October 11). And finally, the strategic deadlock in Russia’s Syrian intervention—aggravated by the quarrel with Israel triggered by the Syrian missile hit on a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane (see EDM, September 27, October 9)—has generated speculation about a new risky military adventure in war-torn Libya (RBC, October 9).

In this bleak context, the significance of the failed space launch illuminates the profound causes of each of these unrelated fiascoes. Indeed, the crisis in the Russian space industry goes deep and signifies the exhaustion of the old Soviet technological base and a lack of innovative designs (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 11; see EDM, February 1, July 19). President Vladimir Putin has recently ordered the acceleration of work on the new heavy Angara-A5 rocket, but the main design bureau, Khrunichev Center, is suffering from a bad financial crisis and cannot rely on homemade substitutes for Western technologies (, August 17). Russian engineers are trying to fix the technical defects after each failed launch; but the managers have no answer to the fast progress in the United States’ space programs, both public and commercial (RBC, October 11). For now and perhaps for the next couple of years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is still interested in preserving cooperative ties with Roscosmos, but Moscow cannot count on retaining the competitive advantages it has enjoyed in the last couple of decades (Novaya Gazeta, October 11).

The structural crisis in the Russian space industry is aggravated by appallingly poor leadership, which is now entrusted to Dmitry Rogozin, known more for his bombastic statements than managerial skills (, July 26). He supervised the construction of the new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East, which has become a symbol of runaway corruption (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 14). When a dangerous leak was discovered at the International Space Station last month, Rogozin was quick to blame US astronauts, hinting at sabotage (Kommersant, September 12). His assertions that Ovchinin and Hague can try again to reach orbit this spring is raising more concern than optimism (RIA Novosti, October 12).

Rogozin perfectly illustrates Putin’s problem of finding competent people for dealing with the accumulating problems. The president’s court is crowded with corrupt sycophants, among which he tries to identify loyalists who appear to lack significant ambition—but such individuals also tend to shirk responsibility. Presently, Putin is busy reshuffling the cohort of governors seeking to subdue discontent brewing in many regions, but it is futile to discern any logic in his appointments (, October 4). Notable among the discarded is Georgy Poltavchenko, who loyally served as the city governor of St. Petersburg for seven years and planned to continue (, October 5). He has been demoted, on October 3, to take charge of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) but is unlikely to perform any better than Rogozin does as the head of Roscosmos. The shipbuilding industry is indeed badly underperforming, not least due to Western sanctions. The Russian navy cannot stage enough parades and shows of flag to camouflage this crisis (, August 1).

All Russian state corporations, including the badly mismanaged Gazprom, excel at dressing up their demands for budget subsidies as “national security” matters. But Roscosmos has gone beyond that and turned into a virtual “black hole,” in which money disappears without any promise of returns. The hugely expensive construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome has brought no dynamism to the chronically depressed Far East (, September 13). Nonetheless, the Khrunichev Center expects some $1.5 billion from the budget just to cover its debts, while every failed launch (four this year) adds to the list of undelivered commitments (RBC, September 28). Russian state budget expenditures, meanwhile, are being trimmed almost across the board, from military modernization to social benefits (Rosbalt, October 9).

Weak economic performance determines most of the particular setbacks and misfortunes, and scandalous corruption in the state corporations is one of the drivers for this trend (, October 11). This business “culture” compels even those foreign investors who know their way around the sanctions regime to reduce their Russian portfolios (RBC, October 12). The inescapable reality of falling incomes translates into broadening and deepening public disappointment in Putin’s “more of the same” course. And the propaganda campaign of blaming the hardships on Western hostility is no more convincing than Rogozin’s accusations of US astronauts drilling holes in the space station (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 11). Irritation over shameless corruption and the urge for—rather than typical fear of—changes are not focused on the regional authorities but go all the way up (, October 9). Polls measuring public trust in Putin’s leadership have registered an unprecedented drop from 59 to 39 percent in less than a year (, October 8).

Little compelling evidence exists to suggest that the current sequence of setbacks for Russia is likely to reverse into a period of renewed good luck. The next launch of the legacy Soyuz rocket will hopefully be smooth; but even a successful liftoff will not cancel the organizational inefficiency and the technological backwardness of the Russian space industry. Putin needs to show resolute authority, but he cannot simply fire Rogozin. For one thing, this loud-mouth maverick makes for a poor scapegoat. But additionally, Putin fears elite intrigues and betrayals more than public discontent. The Kremlin has no way of knowing how much resilience there is in the seemingly rigid but severely corrupt system of power, but it cannot find a way to energize it in order to preempt the next disaster with a proactive move that would be a sure win. It appears, there is nearly no appetite for taking risks among the major stakeholders in the autumnal Putinist system.