Russia Threatens to Leave ISS Because U.S. Sanctions Are Actually Working

The ISS in low Earth orbit.

The ISS in low Earth orbit.
Image: NASA

Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, said Russia will pack its bags and leave the International Space Station by 2025 unless the United States lifts sanctions that are currently impeding the country’s space sector.

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As Tass reports, Rogozin made the remarks during a Russian state duma, or parliamentary, hearing held on Monday June 7 to discuss Western sanctions and possible countermeasures. If sanctions “are not lifted in the near future,” he said, the “issue of Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS will be the responsibility of the American partners,” according to a translation provided by NBC. Rogozin said Russia would leave the orbital outpost as early as 2025, Reuters reports.

“Either we work together, in which case the sanctions are lifted immediately, or we will not work together and we will deploy our own station,” said Rogozin.

Sounds like a kid threatening to take his ball and go home, except that the ball—the International Space Station—is a longstanding collaboration featuring contributions from not just Russia and the U.S., but also the European Union, Canada, and Japan. Russia can leave the game, but the ball will have to stay behind.

A few years ago, Russia’s departure would have been even more complicated, as NASA purchased expensive rides on Russian rockets in order to get its astronauts to space. But now, with NASA relying on SpaceX vehicles for the journey, the situation has changed.

The Roscosmos chief pointed to sanctions against two Russian companies in particular: JSC Rocket and Space Center – Progress and JSC Central Research Institute of Machine Building, also known as TsNIIMash. Back in December, the Trump administration placed these space companies, along with 43 other Russian firms, on the naughty list of firms with alleged ties to the Russian military. American exporters now need to obtain a special license should they wish to work with these sanctioned companies.

As a result of these measures, Russia now lacks a key ingredient involved in the construction of satellites. The country has “more than enough rockets but nothing to launch them with,” Rogozin admitted. “We have spacecraft that are nearly assembled but they lack one specific microchip set that we have no way of purchasing because of the sanctions.”

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Oof—that’s quite the reveal. As Reuters aptly put it, Rogozin’s remarks were a “rare admission by a senior Russian official that Western sanctions are seriously impeding the development of a given industry.”

International sanctions were imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, the U.S. has imposed additional sanctions owing to alleged election meddling, cyber attacks, and the poisoning of Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Rogozin himself is under personal sanctions imposed by both the United States and European Union.

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As for the Biden administration easing sanctions on the two companies, that seems unlikely, given that these measures are clearly hurting Russia and that Biden announced new sanctions this past April. Biden has also referred to Putin as a “killer,” so there’s that.

The ISS has been in orbit since 1998, and it consists of an American and Russian segment. Back in October of last year, veteran Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said the Russian modules are “exhausted,” fitted with expired equipment in desperate need of replacement. Recent incidents within the Russian segment include a persistent air leak, a failed oxygen supply system, and a failed toilet. Russia, it would seem, is no longer super invested in the ISS, anyway. What’s more, and as Russia said back in April, it plans to launch its own space station in 2030. China, too, is currently building its own space station, called Tiangong, which should be completed in about two years or less.

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For Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, this news doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

“Politically I think it is not surprising for Russia to end its space partnership with the U.S. in the years to come,” he explained in an email. “Equally, it’s clear that, despite some words about welcoming international participation, the U.S. was not interested in having Russia as an equal partner in its Artemis lunar program.”

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Similar threats made by Russia in the past were thinly veiled attempts to get more money, but “this seems more genuine or at least more strongly linked to the overall U.S.-Russia political situation, which seems unlikely to improve in the next few years,” McDowell added.

All this said, it would suck to see Russia leave. NASA administrator Bell Nelson has said as much, recently saying “it would not be good” if Russia left the program. Since 2000, the space station has always hosted at least one American and one Russian together, and it would be a shame to disrupt this continuity. Moreover, the ISS represents a kind of safe space, where Americans and Russians can work together and set politics aside. The current U.S. plan is to support the ISS through to 2030 at least.

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More: A busted toilet kicked off a seriously crappy night on the ISS.

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