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Will Russia rejoin the international community through space, post-Putin?

In this Dec. 6, 2021, file photo provided by NASA, the International Space Station orbited 264 miles above the Tyrrhenian Sea.
NASA via Associated Press
In this Dec. 6, 2021, file photo provided by NASA, the International Space Station orbited 264 miles above the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Soon after the launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon carrying a crew that included a Russian cosmonaut to the International Space Station (ISS), Sergei Krikalev — who is also executive director of Russia’s human space flight programs at Roscosmos — had some positive things to say about continued Russian participation on the ISS, according to reporting from Space News.

Krikalev said, “We just continue what we started many years ago in 1975 when the Apollo-Soyuz crew worked together, and now we continue our cooperation.”

Krikalev is the spokesperson Roscosmos needs to support Russia’s continued participation with NASA and the rest of the partners on the ISS. He is a former cosmonaut who flew on the space shuttle and spent two tours on the ISS. He is very familiar with his American NASA counterparts and has undoubtedly formed meaningful connections at the American space agency.

He and the new head of Roscosmos, Yuri Borisov, likely realize that if the Russian space program is to have any future at all, it must ally with the West. The situation is remarkable, as Russia has become a pariah nation because of its ongoing atrocities in Ukraine. But even hopes of a Chinese-Russian space axis have gone by the wayside. Space News recently reported that China is reaching out for potential partners for its lunar program. Russia was conspicuous by its absence from that list. The Russian space program is in serious trouble and is, therefore, of no use to China.

Russia’s partnership in the ISS exists in its own universe, divorced from the rest of the world, where the war in Ukraine and threats of nuclear blackmail have caused disgust and fear. Russian cosmonauts are working side by side with their Western counterparts on the ISS despite the fact that their country is committing daily war crimes in Ukraine.

However, this partnership provides an opportunity for a post-Putin, post-Ukraine war Russia to rejoin the community of nations and to make amends for what its government has done to its neighbor. The best-case scenario is that Russia withdraws from Ukraine, Putin falls from power and no one uses nuclear weapons. Much depends on who leads Russia after Putin. If the new leader is reasonable and sane, Russia has a chance to recover from its self-inflicted catastrophe.

The first thing a new Russian regime should do regarding space is to offer to sign the Artemis Accords. The Artemis Accords is an agreement among nations to regulate activity on the moon and other celestial bodies for mutual benefit. Under Putin, Russia has resisted joining the Artemis Alliance, claiming that it is a vehicle for American domination of space. By signing the accords, Russia would signal that it intends to follow the rule of international law in space. The Artemis Accords is a natural extension of the ISS cooperation alliance that has benefited Russia since it joined in the mid-1990s.

By signing the Artemis Accords and joining the growing space exploration alliance, Russia would have access to a share of the riches that traveling to the moon and beyond will garner. It will need all the wealth it can manage, not only to rebuild its economy, but to pay reparations to Ukraine and other nations it has wronged during Putin’s reign of terror.

The other signatories of the Artemis Accords, which include Ukraine, can condition Russia’s inclusion on its willingness to behave as a civilized nation going forward. Putin’s successor will be left with a stark choice: Either put aside obsolete notions of what makes a nation great and abjure imperialism, or continue clinging to dreams of past glories, to Russia’s detriment.

Inclusion in the Artemis Alliance as an inducement for Russia’s good behavior would have another benefit for the United States and her allies. If Russia signs the Artemis Accord, it will set itself at odds against China, which harbors ambitions concerning the moon and beyond. A central feature of American foreign policy has been to keep Russia and China antagonistic to one another since Nixon went to China in the early 1970s. The policy broke down sometime during the Obama administration. It’s time to restore it.

Space can be used as a means to bring Russia back to the community of nations. All it requires is a new leader in the Kremlin willing to make it happen.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags International International Space Station Russia Space Ukraine invasion

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