Russia’s Ukraine invasion has escalated a brewing battle over space

A 57-second video released by the Russian government last month caught the attention of scientists and diplomats, but not in a way that inspired optimism about the future of global space cooperation.

In it, Russian cosmonauts floated around the International Space Station, hugging and waving goodbye to an American astronaut. Then they entered their part of the complex, sealing airlock doors behind them. As the video played a Russian song “Farewell,” CGI took over and depicted the segment of the cosmonaut detaching from the station and drifting away (to applause from Russian ground controllers).

The somber but vividly satirical video depicting the station’s certain demise heralded more serious threats to an endeavor that has become a symbol of post-Cold War space cooperation.

It is also another sign that tensions with the Kremlin, most recently exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have spilled into space, ratcheting up tensions over rules of conduct there and halting space weapons negotiations at one point , where the battlefields of war move to the fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The whole world is kind of readjusting to this whole notion of not just competition but possible and even unintended confrontation with other great powers” in how they use space, said Jessica West, a senior researcher at Project Plowshares, a peace research group in Canada .

Space has long been a barometer of US-Russia relations. Cold War competition pushed Moscow and Washington to new human achievements in the 1960s, including the US moon landing in 1969. Concerns about President Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense weapons program led to arms negotiations in the 1980s that heralded the end of the Soviet Union.

The Space Station Agreement of 1998 – which also includes the European Union, Japan and Canada – signaled a new era of joint progress in the post-Cold War era. The jointly operated station has been rotating around the world for more than two decades.

This space détente was fading long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the US and its allies targeted Moscow’s space industry with a series of economic sanctions. For two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed for an aggressive expansion of his country’s space weapons program.

American officials have claimed since 2009 that the Kremlin is developing anti-satellite missiles and, more recently, a mobile anti-satellite laser.

Russia launched what it called an Inspector satellite in 2017, prompting deep skepticism among American officials about what they described as the spacecraft’s “abnormal behavior,” suggesting it could also have military utility. Two years later, Russia placed a satellite in close proximity to a US spy satellite, raising concerns of an unintended confrontation between the two military powers.

In November, Russia tested a missile that hit a satellite and blew it up into more than 1,500 large pieces of debris, each chunk of manned and unmanned commercial and military spacecraft, including the space station’s crew, who were forced to fall into peril for shelter.

The US and its allies have sharply criticized Russia for the test, with Vice President Kamala Harris calling it an “irresponsible act”. [that] endangered the satellites of other nations as well as the astronauts on the International Space Station.”

Meanwhile, the Trump and Biden administrations have ramped up efforts to counter competition from Russia and China in space. This was underscored by Trump’s decision to create a new branch of the military, the Space Force.

The new military branch is one of his few legacies that Biden has embraced, with the White House recently submitting a $24.5 billion budget request for the Space Force, up about 40% from a year ago. That’s almost as much as the $26 billion Biden has asked for NASA, which predates the Space Force by more than 60 years.

These ongoing tensions have hampered attempts to rewrite international rules on space debris, and the invasion of Ukraine has prompted US officials to shelve all direct talks between Washington and Moscow on space-related issues.

“We see no need for these discussions as long as they are in conflict with the Ukrainians,” said Eric Desautels, acting assistant assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy, in a recent interview conducted by the National Security Space Assn., a nonprofit Organization that promotes cooperation between government and industry.

Desautels said Russia and China would like a future treaty that would prevent the US from putting space-based missile defense systems into orbit. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is defining defensive weapons versus those with offensive capabilities. The US argues that even if their work has no military intent, commercial actors could be caught up in more restrictive rules.

Possible negotiations are hampered by a series of economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of the Ukraine war. The US has deliberately targeted Russia’s space industry, with Biden vowing on the day of the invasion that US sanctions were aimed in part at affecting “its aerospace industry, including its space program.”

The economic crackdown on Russia has prompted a series of threats from its space officials. The head of the Russian space program, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted April in Russian that “the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the full and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions.”

Even before invading Ukraine, Moscow had hinted it could exit the partnership in the next few years – citing security concerns with aging metal – as it signs new deals with China on space exploration and lunar exploration. The station, which has also become a rental hub for billionaire space tourists, is scheduled to be retired by 2030.

Zhanna Malekos Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia was creating “strategic fog” with its mixed signals about the space station pact. But she pointed to signs of hope, including the March 30 return from the station of American astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who was traveling back to Kazakhstan in a Russian capsule with two cosmonauts – Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov.

When Shkaplerov handed over control of the station to astronaut Thomas Marshburn a day earlier, he said that with all the problems that exist on Earth, “in orbit, we’re like a crew.”

West, the researcher at Project Plowshares, said the invasion of Ukraine accelerated and reformulated many of the talks about the militarization of space, including the interplay between civilian and state interests. Satellites, in particular, connect much of the modern world, helping the military coordinate troop movements and locate missile strikes.

It’s a dramatic shift in mindset compared to a ground war, where “you’re either in a war zone or you’re not,” she said.

She pointed out that other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, India, China, Russia and Japan, have moved towards creating more formalized space commands like the Space Force, a recognition that the battlefield has shifted.

They all come to the conclusion that space is not just for exploration. It’s also a new frontline. Russia’s Ukraine invasion has escalated a brewing battle over space

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