Polls taken over the last decade show that Russians view their country’s space program as second only to victory in World War II as the key “reference point” in their history. At the same time, it is seen as a symbol of authoritarian modernization their government has promised but not always delivered on. And finally, it serves as “an indicator” of whether the country is moving in the right direction under Vladimir Putin or not (Levada.ru, April 10, 2011 and April 8, 2016; Wciom.ru, April 12, 2021). That makes the sector’s problems in recent years far more politically salient than would otherwise be the case, security analyst Pavel Luzin writes. The deteriorating situation means the Kremlin may continue to throw good money after bad in the hope that it can turn things around before the system collapses entirely (Riddle, July 7, 2021).
Indicative of the space program’s importance for the Russian people and the Russian state is that the law governing its operation was adopted even before the Russian constitution and that the governing policy document has been regularly reaffirmed by the Kremlin leadership (Garant.ru, February 14, 2014; Kommersant, January 28, 2020). But “the main problem with this document,” Luzin says, is that it contains goals that “exceed the objective capabilities of the country,” especially in the wake of the imposition of Western sanctions for the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. That gulf between goals and abilities has only grown in recent years, exacerbated still further by sanctions that have hit the high-technology space programs especially hard as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made work on many aspects of those programs difficult if not impossible (Riddle, July 7, 2021).
Specifically, the Russian space program is supposed to focus on three large-scale projects: the manufacture of the Angara launch vehicle, the return of Russian cosmonauts to space, and the construction of a new space port at Vostochny to replace the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan. With a little luck, some patience and a concerted effort to fight the corruption endemic to the branch, Luzin argues, the Russian space effort could achieve progress in all these areas; but to do so, it must “stop trying to emulate the United States,” where the government is drawing on the private sector to finance many US projects. Such a strategy is now being discussed in Russia, but the Kremlin has shown little support (Pobedarf.ru, Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 12). For the foreseeable future, chances are low that private funds will flow into the Russian program the way they have done in the US (Riddle, July 7).
Roscosmos, the analyst says, must continue to operate as a state corporation rather than being converted back into a government space agency. While plans for new cosmonaut flights and other civilian projects should be developed “exclusively” with international cooperation, he contends. Military and civilian efforts should be separated. But most importantly, Luzin argues, “Russia can and should abandon any notion of ‘space autarky.’ It must participate in the system of international industrial cooperation and, thus, restore legal access to space electronics produced abroad. That will require a significant shift in Moscow’s policies.” Absent a renewed collaboration with foreign entities, he writes, Russia will lose two things: not just an effective space program but also a symbol of the kind of authoritarian modernization Putin routinely suggests is his contribution to the future.
A key reason why the Russian space program is so politically important now is the role that memories of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin still play in Russian thinking about the greatness of their country. Indeed, those remarkable early successes in the Space Race make the modern-day decline in the Russian space program both an embarrassment and a source of anger. Russia is no longer even second to the United States: it lags well behind China and, by some measures, behind other countries as well. Its remaining satellites are overwhelmingly for military purposes and, thus, not something the Kremlin can boast about openly (Imhoclub.lv, July 15). Moscow’s recent successes in this field have all depended on cooperation with the West—be it with the International Space Station or the sale of Russian rocket engines—rather than its own actions (see EDM, June 22, 2020, March 31, 2021, June 22, 2021). And both its cost overruns in building a new space port on Russian territory to replace the Soviet-era cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as well as its fiascos on the launch pad have been frequent and embarrassing (see EDM, May 15, 2013, February 1, 2018, April 29, 2020).
These failings have highlighted three other predicaments as well, all of which mean that the Russian space program in its current shape is undermining domestic support for the regime. First, in Soviet times, the space program was always presented as indicative of the superiority of the Communist system over the West. Now, there is no such effort. Second, while the Soviet program was certainly military-centric, Moscow was nonetheless able to make use of a variety of associated technological advances to improve other parts of the economy. That is not happening today. And third, the Soviet space program was embedded in an ideology that looked to the future with optimism; but the Russian program is not about the future—at best, it is trying to prevent the country from falling further behind its competitors. And that is a lesson from the Russian space program that may prove the most damning of all as far as Vladimir Putin and his regime are concerned.
Consequently, this infamously expensive program will continue to cut into Putin’s ratings unless or until costs can be contained or some dramatic success is achieved. Neither is likely—the leadership of Roscosmos is too well connected politically, and no obvious breakthrough program appears to be on the horizon. And so something that had helped Moscow boost its standing among the Soviet people in the past is unlikely to have the same effect with Russians today.