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Pioneer no more: The degradation of Russia's space capabilities

Author: Aditya Pareek, Bangalore Olivia Savage, London
Publication: Jane's Intelligence Review

Russia was a pioneering space power in the 20th century; however, since the 21st century, its dominance has declined. Aditya Pareek and Olivia Savage analyse this decline and the broader implications on its space industry

The Soviet Union was a pioneering space power in the 20th century, having successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in 1957; conducted the first three exploration missions to the moon, Luna-1, Luna-2, and Luna-3, in 1959; sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961; and launched the first space station, Salyut, in 1971. Today, Russia's space programme is not as accomplished or efficient as its Soviet counterpart, with chronic underfunding, mismanagement, and mission failures from the 1990s onwards having diminished the overall capabilities of its space industrial complex.

Leading Russia's tailing space efforts is Roscosmos, a conglomerate of various state-owned design bureaus, factories, and research institutions focused on space flight, space exploration, research and development of key space technologies, manufacturing, and other support functions.

Loss of Luna-25 and similar incidents

In August 2023 Russia launched its first lunar mission in decades – Luna-25 – before it unexpectedly crashed into the moon's surface. This was likely after a malfunction in its propulsion system that led to a thruster firing for 127 seconds instead of the intended 84 seconds, in turn affecting the safe landing of the spacecraft by Roscosmos. In a 21 August 2023 statement, Director General of Roscosmos Yury Borisov blamed the “negative impact of almost 50 years” of inactivity in Russia's lunar programme. Moscow's last successful mission to the lunar surface was the Soviet Luna-24, which returned lunar soil samples for scientific study in 1976. Similar to Luna-25, the failures of the Mars 96 mission to Mars in 1996 and Phobos-Grunt, which targeted Mars's moon Phobos in 2011, were major setbacks to Russia's interplanetary space exploration programme in their respective decades.

While Luna-25 is a unilateral mission, similar incidents have also affected Russia's multilateral co-operation on the International Space Station (ISS). Although the incident ultimately did not result in any damage, Russia's newest segment for the ISS, Nauka, unexpectedly fired its thrusters and briefly spun the ISS out of position while docking with the space station on 29 July 2021. According to NASA flight director Zebulon Scoville, who was part of the mission control during the incident as quoted by the New York Times in a 2 August 2021 report, the ISS “spun one-and-a-half revolutions – about 540º – before coming to a stop upside down. The space station then did a 180° forward flip to get back to its original orientation”. Despite being one of the few remaining avenues of continuing co-operation between Russia and the West, the ISS is reaching the end of its life and will likely be decommissioned after 2030.

Sanctions and break with the West

Roscosmos has also been affected by sanctions imposed on it by the Group of Seven (G7) countries after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Dmitry Rogozin, the then director general of Roscosmos, told the Russian State Duma in a June 2021 hearing that Roscosmos was unable to complete the manufacturing of some satellites because they could no longer import certain microchips from the West after sanctions. Rogozin also oversaw the breakdown of Roscosmos's commercial relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA), many G7 countries' governments, and private customers following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In March 2022 Roscosmos cancelled the launch of 36 satellites from UK company OneWeb in response to the UK's sanctions against Russia. In addition to this, Rogozin demanded the UK government divest from OneWeb as well as guarantee that its services would not be used for military purposes, to which neither OneWeb nor the British government complied. Later that month, India's state-owned NewSpace India Limited successfully launched the satellites.

During his tenure, Rogozin was also known for his ultranationalist rhetoric and being regularly involved in online feuds with Western space journalists, politicians, and former astronauts, which reflected poorly on Roscosmos. In the last year of Rogozin's leadership, Roscosmos was also subject to budget cuts and losses. In 2021–22 Roscosmos's net losses amounted to RUB50 billion (USD521 million) compared with a RUB500 million net profit in 2020–21, and its budget was lowered to RUB210 billion in 2022 compared with RUB250 billion in 2021.