Russia Launches ‘Musical’ Space Salvo

Since 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) has been praised as an exemplary model of international cooperation. Even the physical structure of the ISS, built with Russian and American components, works in tandem to power the space station for the 16 partner nations. But following Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine, space ties between Russia and the United States have unraveled.

After the Biden administration’s announcement of economic sanctions against Russia’s space program, the director of the Roscosmos space agency, Dmitri Rogozin, rebuked the U.S. on Twitter, saying, “Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?”

Roscosmos’s cooperation with NASA includes supplying Russian-built Soyuz capsules to boost the ISS in orbit. Rogozin questioned who would “save” the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and potentially falling on the United States or Europe. “All of the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?” he asked. This implied that NASA would not be capable of boosting the station without Soyuz capsules; however, this assertion was challenged by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who countered on Twitter that SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft could provide this capability.

More recently, Rogozin announced on Russian television that “We can't supply the United States with our world's best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don't know what.” The TV studio for Roscosmos also produced a satirical music video on Telegram of the Russian ISS module decoupling from the space station. The video features the famous Russian song “Прощай” (Farewell), sung by Lev Leshchenko. Around 11 seconds into the video, cosmonauts merrily wave goodbye to the camera as the chorus cries out “farewell, farewell!” and the cosmonauts hug NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei goodbye. Next, the camera combines shots of cosmonauts departing from the Russian segment of the ISS and an applauding room of Russian officials. 

So, just how concerned should NASA be about this spectacle? On the one hand, some commentators have construed the video as “threatening.” This is likely because the English translation of the video’s disclaimer warns that if the Russian segment leaves the ISS, “it is impossible for the American part of the project to endure.”

On the other hand, this interpretation fails to consider the following points: First and foremost, it is technically infeasible for the Russian segment to leave the ISS. This is because the Russian segment is not self-powered and cannot independently pilot itself from the space station. Second, this video is musically underscored with the popular Russian song “Прощай” (Farewell), which is commonly used in Russian memes. For example, another currently popular Russian video—which plays the same song—shows penguins symbolizing international companies waddling away from Russia in response for its actions against Ukraine.

Penguins aside, Roscosmos’s space video is troubling for a few reasons: First, it curiously spotlights NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who traveled on a Russian Soyuz capsule to the ISS last April and is scheduled to return to Earth on March 30. Further, despite the jaunty song tune, the closing of the video is set to specific song lyrics of a fractured relationship.

Ultimately, Roscosmos’s sardonic music video reveals a symbolic fracture in U.S.-Russia space relations.

Recall that in November, Moscow drew the ire of the international space community when it conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile test that unleashed an orbital debris field of approximately 1,500 pieces. In response, 163 members of the UN General Assembly voted to promote a dialogue on norms of responsible state behavior in space by establishing the open-ended working group (OEWG) on reducing space threats. Notably, major spacefaring powers like China and Russia were opposed to its formation. China and Russia “increasingly see space as a warfighting domain,” warns the U.S. intelligence community’s new 2022 Annual Threat Assessment; therefore, multilateral space forums like the OEWG are vital for mitigating the risks of misperception and conflict. The OEWG’s first meeting was scheduled for February 14 in Geneva, but based on the Russian delegation’s multiple objections and the escalating crisis in Ukraine, the meeting was pushed to May. Collectively, these actions raise concerns about escalatory potential and how to ensure stability under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Moreover, given the renewed fears of a space “arms race” looming over UN discussions, Russia’s warnings of abandoning the ISS partnership are no laughing matter.

Zhanna Malekos Smith is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Zhanna L. Malekos Smith
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project, and Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program