Space for Cooperation?

U.S.-Russia Space Relations: Limits and Prospects

With all the talk of high-tech Russian super-missiles and Trump’s addition of Space Force as a new military branch, it is easy to forget that the US and Russia having been working closely together in space ever since the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975—even as the overall relationship has become more adversarial. The U.S. and Russia share training, communications, operational capabilities and expenses in support of the International Space Station (ISS), and following the cancellation of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the United States continues to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsules for transport to the ISS. But three recent developments threaten to undo even this area of remaining U.S.-Russia cooperation: the privatization of space exploration in the US, signs of the weaponization of space by both countries, and the phasing out of ISS. Despite these developments, and even as both countries’ programs turn more inward-looking, small steps can be taken to safeguard a degree of U.S.-Russia cooperation in space. This would be in both countries’ national interest, and can provide a small buffer to the relationship as a whole.

U.S.-Russian space cooperation continues to be a stated mutual goal. In April 2018, President Putin said of space, “Thank God, this field of activity is not being influenced by problems in politics. Therefore, I hope that everything will develop, since it is in the interests of everyone…This is a sphere that unites people. I hope it will continue to be this way.” During his statement at a recent event at CSIS, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “[space] is our best opportunity to dialogue when everything else falls apart. We’ve got American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts dependent on each other on the International Space Station, which enables us to ultimately maintain that dialogue.” The U.S. and Russia both benefit from the ISS partnership. Russia provides transportation to the ISS for U.S. astronauts, from which Russia receives an average of $81 million per seat on the Soyuz (and recognition of its status as a space power). The U.S. also benefits from Russia’s technical contributions to the ISS while Russia benefits  The U.S. and Russia signed a joint statement in 2017 in support of the idea of collaborating on deep space exploration, including the construction of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a research-focused space station orbiting the moon. Through agreements on civilian space exploration, such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway or future Mars projects, that have clear benefits to both sides, some degree of cooperation will remain in both countries’ interest. The high price tag for pursuing space exploration alone and opportunities for sharing and receiving technical expertise encourages international partnerships like the ISS.

However, at least three factors, apart from the overall deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, threaten this cooperation. First, growth of the private sector space industry may alter the economic arrangement between the U.S. and Russia, and ultimately lower the benefits of cooperation to both countries. The development of advanced technologies by private companies will give NASA new options to choose from and reduce the need to depend on (and negotiate with) Russia. If NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roskosmos, have no need to talk with one another, they probably won’t in the face of tense political relations. The U.S. intends to use Boeing and SpaceX capsules for human spaceflight beginning in 2020, and a Congressional plan in 2016 set a phase out date of Russian RD-180 rocket engines by 2022.

Second, the seeming emergence of space as a new domain of warfare in U.S. and Russian national security and defense doctrine could make cooperation with a potential adversary too risky. The 2018 National Defense Strategy characterizes “space and cyberspace as warfighting domains.” Russia’s 2010 military doctrine stated that ensuring superiority in space is “decisive factor” in achieving its strategic goals. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty that spacefaring countries signed prohibits the installation and use of weapons of mass destruction in space but does not expressly prohibit conventional weapons or discuss the destruction of satellites. As more and more critical infrastructure and lives rely on the internet, countries are becoming increasingly concerned about the security of satellites. One country’s attempts to protect their space assets with space-based weapons may spook others into building up their own capabilities in a high-tech example of the classic security dilemma. This would increase the tense security environment, impeding incentives for technology or capability sharing in space partnerships.

Third, existing cooperation, especially over the ISS, is winding down, leaving the United States and Russia to face the choice of renewing cooperation in other areas of space exploration at a time of growing hostility, or of partnering with other actors. Russian Embassy Press Secretary Nikolay Lakhonin said, “[Lunar Orbital Platform-Getaway] will become a logical continuation of the International Space Station as a platform for productive cooperation and partnership based on equality of its members, mutual trust and respect”. However, if relations worsen dramatically, Russia could turn to China for space partnerships. In 2018 Roskosmos and the China National Space Administration signed a memorandum of understanding on a joint venture to explore the Moon, even though NASA and Roskosmos support collaboration on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. Major Sino-Russian cooperation would likely further diminish US-Russian cooperation in space due to U.S. concerns over Chinese cyber espionage and technology capture (a clause in a 2011 spending bill passed by Congress prohibits NASA from cooperating on joint ventures with China). Because the U.S. is still a better-equipped partner for future space projects, Russia may keep to the existing framework. On the other hand, owing to increasing concern over Russia’s military and cyber activities, the U.S. may be the one to look elsewhere.

Despite these threats, some level of cooperation is likely to continue, including continued dependence on Russia for human spaceflight and rocket engines. NASA has extended its contract for seats on the Russian Soyuz capsule into 2019 because of delays in the project to build a new US spacecraft.

In part, such cooperation is the result of mutual dependence that has emerged over the decades and cannot be easily unwound. Take rocket engines. Even with new spacecraft built in the US, Boeing’s capsule is designed for the Atlas V rocket, which is used by NASA and the military to launch satellites and depends on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines. Congress debated banning the use of Russian rocket engines, but eventually compromised on the issue and agreed to phase out their use by 2022 because U.S manufacturers were unable to completely replace the RD-180 engines. Russia also threatened to stop supplying RD-180 engines to the US in response to additional sanctions, but eventually decided to continue the arrangement. Majority state-owned company Energomash depends on U.S. purchases of its the RD-180 engines to stay in business. While the new head of Roskosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, was added to the United States’ Ukraine-related sanctions list in 2014, the U.S. has made exceptions for the space industry in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 and for ISS operations in the Ukraine-related sanctions so that US companies can continue dealing with Russian companies.

The U.S. and Russia still have incentives to continue working together, including mutual financial benefits, interdependence of space industries, and the fulfillment of existing agreements. Yet “natural” areas of cooperation in the past have fallen victim to political turmoil, including, most prominently, arms control. U.S.-Russia space cooperation could go the same way if both sides do not take steps to preserve one of the last remaining positive aspects of the bilateral relationship.

While the separation of the space relationship from the broader context means it is not likely to be a building block for better overall relations, there are small steps each side can take to make sure space cooperation continues. The space relationship would be best maintained through civilian scientific and technical agencies like NASA and Roskosmos, which would bolster the image of space as a scientific enterprise rather than a military one. Moreover, the U.S. and Russia should work to create mutually beneficial formal agreements on further cooperation in space that include some measure of interdependence. This could look like formalizing an agreement on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway project where, for example, Russia is responsible for developing a part of the space station along with the U.S. and other partners and both sides agree to share seats on spacecraft and scientific equipment. Both sides should also tone down their rhetoric on the militarization of space and consider a new line of military-military contact focused on resolving space issues, such as anti-satellite weapons and space debris. These steps, though modest, can safeguard space as an area of positive—if diminishing—cooperation, and could open doors for improvement in other aspects of the relationship.

Kimberly Schuster is a research intern with the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.