What would Peter the Great say to Putin about space power?
NASA has officially extended the life of the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030, the better to give time for commercial companies to deploy commercial orbiting facilities that will replace it. While Congress is solidifying the decision into American law, most of the ISS partners are considering the proposal but seem to be on board. Russia, not surprisingly, seems to be a conspicuous hold-out.
Russia is still negotiating the terms of its continued participation in the ISS. However, Earthly events, particularly concerning Russia’s neighbor Ukraine, threaten to derail the planned extension. The recent Russian ASAT test, which created a debris field that threatened the ISS and its crew, has not helped matters.
The problem with the Russian space station partnership, first established in the mid-1990s, has been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 19th century approach to making Russia great again. Putin, who resents the fall of the Soviet Union, has been attempting to reestablish that empire by extending his influence across many of the old Soviet Republics. In the case of Ukraine, his strategy has been to grab territory and intimidate the West with displays of military power.
Putin is undertaking the exact wrong approach if his object is to enhance Russian power and influence. All he will likely accomplish is to make enemies especially if he undertakes an invasion of Ukraine as U.S. officials have predicted
If Putin were in a mind to delve back into Russian history, he might discover a better model for reestablishing the greatness of Mother Russia. Around the beginning of the 18th century, Czar Peter the Great ruled over a Russia that was backward and corrupt, much like the current country. Czar Peter looked to the West for ideas about how to improve the Russian economy and military standing. The Czar was particularly interested in building up the Russian Navy.
What might Peter the Great advise Putin to do? First, recognizing that the West is Russia’s natural ally, deescalate threats toward Ukraine to everyone’s satisfaction.
Second, noting that just as ship building was the key to power in the 18th century, space travel serves much the same purpose in the 21st, Czar Peter would suggest to Putin to do as he did, seek alliances and help from the West to enhance Russia’s space power.
Russia should agree to extend the ISS to 2030. The space station partnership has been advantageous to all parties concerned, especially Russia, which would not have a space program without it.
Russia should also sign the Artemis Accords. This move would mean breaking the nascent space partnership with China, but it would mean that Russian cosmonauts would be more likely to walk on the moon. As with the ISS partnership, Russia would be treated with respect as part of the Artemis Alliance.
Russia’s space chief Dmitry Rogozin famously invited SpaceX founder Elon Musk over for tea. Peter the Great would advise Putin to make that meeting happen. Musk would be able to teach Russia how to develop and use rocket ships, just as the 18th-century European experts taught Russia how to build a navy.
By eschewing the traditional hard power approach to gaining power and allying with the West, especially in space exploration, Putin would gain for Russia unprecedented access to technology and modern management techniques. Instead of kindling a quagmire in Ukraine, Putin would enhance the wealth of the country he rules over with the same authority that Peter the Great did three centuries ago.
Will Putin take this advice — and turn away from a path certain to bring blood and tears? Putin is a man seemingly obsessed with the fall of the Soviet Union, a humiliation that he would see wiped out, no matter the cost. He is unable to see past the event that defined world history in the last decade of the 20th century. The coming tragedy that will consume both Russia and the West will be felt all the keener because a space-based grand strategy would make things so much better at less cost in lives, money and good will.
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.