Russia’s Space Program in Wartime and Beyond

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 58

Three Russian astronauts wore flight suits that included the colors of the Ukrainian flag when they arrived at the International Space Station in March, causing a minor scandal in Russia (Source: Roscosmos)

The Kremlin’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, launched on February 24, became a game changer for the Russian space program. Western sanctions, adopted in response to the war, have thrown Russia’s space industry into turmoil: previous rounds of sanctions were painful, but they only limited Russia’s access to space-grade electronics and advanced industrial equipment; the current rounds, on the other hand, prevent such technology transfers completely. Additionally, the cancelation of Russia’s partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) means the long-term exclusion of Russia from Mars and a slowing, if not altogether halt, to the Russian Moon exploration program. Russia has also lost its place in the global commercial space market. The International Space Station (ISS) remains the only common space activity where Russia, the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan still act together. Before the war, Roscosmos, the Russian state-owned space corporation, which also plays the role of the national space agency, was ready to prolong the ISS’s life through 2030; it even tried to secure presence on the planned US station in lunar the orbit (the corporation used tough negotiation tactics). But today, it is blackmailing its partners, threatening withdrawal from the ISS as soon as 2024, if the sanctions are not lifted (Interfax, March 14; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 2).

Russia’s Moon exploration program for the 2020s includes three missions: Luna-25 (a technology demonstrator for a Moon landing), Luna-26 (an orbital lunar probe) and Luna-27 (an advanced lander). All of them have relied on Roscosmos’s partnership with the ESA. And while it might be possible for Luna-25 to be ready in 2022, the lost access to advanced European equipment means that Luna-27 will absolutely need to be redesigned (RIA Novosti, Interfax, April 13). For Luna-26, Russia had already purchased all the necessary onboard equipment produced by European partners (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 11); but the probe is scheduled for 2024, and, among other goals, it has to work as an orbital transmitter for the Luna-27 lander, scheduled for 2025 (, accessed April 21). Thus, a delay to Luna-26 seems inevitable because of the necessary delay to the development of Luna-27.

The Russian–European Union project ExoMars, previously rescheduled for 2022, has now also been canceled. This project would have involved a Russia-made lander module and a European-made Mars rover. Moscow has claimed that Russia is capable of realizing this mission by itself, can equip its lander module with all the necessary scientific tools, does not need a Mars rover at all, and only seeks a financial partner like China or “a Persian Gulf state” (presumably the United Arab Emirates) (RIA Novosti, March 27). Yet as much as Russia needs money, it also requires ready access to advanced onboard equipment that it does not produce at all.

That said, Russian troubles in deep space exploration extend beyond the technical, industrial and financial aspects. Today, it is impossible to realize a sustainable and effective scientific space program if universities, research institutions and the whole educational system tends to be isolated from cooperative ties with peers around the world, or if this knowledge sector is subordinated to state political ideology and fully controlled by the security services, like it is in Russia.

Other immediate consequences of the severed space cooperation with the West and Russia’s expulsion from the international commercial space market are related to launch vehicles. On the one hand, Russia is suddenly in possession of a significant number of unwanted rockets: seven aging Proton-M heavy launch vehicles (, April 11) and several Soyuz medium launchers (, April 12). No payloads exist for them today, and this raises the question of whether or not the Russian space industry will need to change its manufacturing plans.

On the other hand, Russian launch vehicle projects are also suffering. For example, the Proton-PM production plant, which manufactures RD-191 engines for the Angara launch vehicle but previously produced engines for the Proton-M rocket, is now reconsidering its manufacturing strategy. After completing its (still ongoing) state-sponsored modernization, the Proton-PM plant’s annual manufacturing capacity was planned to hit 40 RD-191 engines by 2023; but today, the facility has contracts for only 11 engines, and further governmental demand for the Angara is still unclear. Consequently, it needs to solve the problem of underutilized industrial equipment (, April 8, 2022). Russia’s most advanced rocket (developed since 1995), the Angara will not be commercialized any time soon—it will be produced in only small batches, and only to fulfill the government’s needs.

Russia’s ambitions to develop a methane-powered rocket engine have been postponed indefinitely as well because of technological issues and because of the dramatic decline in demand for Russia-made launch vehicles (, April 11). In this way, Russia’s role as one of the major global launch providers—already damaged over the past decade by competition from private US space companies and Indian and Chinese rockets—can be neither restored nor maintained in the foreseeable future.

The fate of Russia’s satellite navigation system, GLONASS, also looks uncertain. The program faced troubles with further development even before the full-scale Russian re-invasion of Ukraine (see EDM, January 22, 2021). Briefly speaking, Russia is not able to support a global satellite navigation system that consists of 24–30 satellites. However, the attempts to develop a constellation of six satellites in high orbits (akin to the Japanese and the Indian regional satellite navigation systems) in addition to or even instead of satellites in medium orbits (such as used by the US GPS and European Galileo constellations) have been postponed from 2026–2027 to at least 2028 (Vestnik GLONASS, April 18, 2022). Moreover, the current structure of GLONASS needs at least 23 new satellites by 2030 in order to simply maintain the competences of the existing system and to replace earlier-generation satellites; but the official plans today foresee sending up a pair of satellites in 2022–2023 and no more than two additional navigation satellites annually in 2024–2030 (, January 20, 2022). That means the future of GLONASS is even shakier today than it was in 2020–2021. It is far from clear whether Russia will be capable of preserving its own indigenously developed and operated satellite navigation system.

Without significant changes to its domestic politics and foreign policy, Russia will find it exceedingly difficult to avoid the collapse of the national space program. Moscow’s only option under the current status quo is a managed reduction of planned space activities almost across the board.