The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on the people of Ukraine. This is despite the fact that the stubborn resistance put up by Ukraine has taken Russia by surprise. This sudden invasion by Russia not only has impacted the larger geopolitical calculations of the region but also has repercussions that reverberate significantly beyond the borders of both countries. The global implications of the attack are visible in the crippling sanctions collectively imposed by the United States and allied countries on Russia. What is less apparent, however, is the impact this war has had on a country like India—in particular, the impact on its space program, which has long been the pride of Indians because of its ability to undertake low-cost innovation in a sphere notorious for cost overruns. It now appears that the war in Ukraine may, in no small measure, impact the ability of India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), to do just that.
Traditionally, matters of outer space have not been held hostage to international skirmishes or even wars. The International Space Station (ISS) is an example of thriving collaboration between a diverse group of nations that notably includes Russia and the United States. More importantly, it reflects a sustained partnership in space for well over two decades that has not been stymied by any disagreements between Russia and the United States over geopolitical issues on the earth. This cooperation has largely continued during the present war in Ukraine as well. It appears that space collaboration would fall within the purview of scientific cooperation—an area that is usually not targeted by any sanctions during war. This is usually to ensure that scientific cooperation is not used as wartime leverage, when other channels of communication could be closed.
Russia’s Space Collaboration After the Ukraine Invasion
However, there are signs that this could be changing. It appears that the West has put all options on the table to sanction Russia, and has not shied away from considering breaking off all academic and scientific cooperation. U.S. President Joe Biden’s initial remarks on instituting sanctions and export controls targeting Russia included a statement that the sanctions against Russia would “degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program.” This does not appear to be a one-off remark. In response to a query in the House of Commons on further cooperation with Russia on the ISS, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied, “I have been broadly in favor of continuing artistic and scientific collaboration, but in the current circumstances it is hard to see how even those can continue as normal.” Sure enough, even the larger global academic community has sought to sever links with Russia.
While the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) did clarify that “new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space cooperation,” Biden’s earlier remarks clearly struck a chord with Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. Rogozin took to Twitter and implied that any sanctions on Russia might lead it to pull out of the ISS and possibly cause the space station to de-orbit and come crashing down somewhere in India, China, or the EU.
It is important to note that the United States and Russia perform different upkeep functions for the ISS. While the United States is entrusted with the task of providing electricity for space station operations, Russia has the responsibility to provide periodic boosts to maintain the altitude of the ISS. These boosts are also used to maneuver the ISS around orbital debris. While it does appear that Russia has not withdrawn from the ISS, it is accurate to say that its bilateral cooperation with various other space agencies has indeed become a casualty of this war.
For instance, the sanctions have led to Roscosmos withdrawing its engineers from the Guiana Space Center, the site of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) operations to launch its Copernicus and Galileo global navigation satellite systems. While the European Commission claimed that this would have no consequences on the “continuity” of its navigation services, it is undeniable that the withdrawal will impact their launch schedule, which was dependent on Russian Soyuz rockets.
However, for all the grandstanding by Roscosmos on pulling out or threatening to pull out of its engagements with Western space agencies, it doesn’t appear that Russia would cause much harm to Western space programs by doing so. First, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to a gradual decoupling of the American and Russian space programs. At the time, with the retirement of the American space shuttle program in 2011, the Russian Soyuz capsule was the only ride to the ISS for all partner nations. Even then, in the wake of sanctions imposed by former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration, Rogozin (then the deputy prime minister of Russia) threatened to refuse Americans access to the Soyuz capsules. This served as a wake-up call for American lawmakers, who ramped up funding for the Commercial Crew Program that eventually led to the likes of SpaceX transporting astronauts to the ISS. A further round of decoupling is now underway; the United Launch Alliance’s proposed Starliner CST-100 space vehicle, which will be used to ferry astronauts to the ISS, will seek to avoid using any Russian engines, unlike previous transports. More importantly, the ISS will soon have additional options when it comes to its re-boosting: Northrop Grumman, an American company, has already designed a spacecraft called Cygnus that will be able to perform re-boosting functions. Cygnus’s integration with the ISS was completed in February 2022.
There is also the question of whether Russia would actually follow through on its threats of withdrawing completely from all bilateral and multilateral space projects. Firstly, it is simply not possible for Russia to pull out of the ISS as abruptly as it has suggested it might. Russia threatened to withdraw from the ISS back in 2021 as well, but did not actually do so. Secondly, withdrawing may endanger Russia’s own human spaceflight program, which relies on the ISS to dock its astronauts. The ISS is certainly nearing the end of its utility, but to borrow a phrase, the reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. It will likely remain in orbit until 2030. And even though Russia has inked plans to construct a joint space station with China on the moon, that station is not set to be completed until 2035, and there are doubts about the durability of space cooperation between China and Russia in the interim period.
Overall, it appears that the West is on its way to a gradual separation from space cooperation with Russia. India, however, is in an entirely different situation. India signed a joint statement with Russia in December 2021, following the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The joint statement agreed to enhanced cooperation between Roscosmos and ISRO in various domains—human spaceflight, satellite navigation, development of launch vehicles, and planetary exploration. This joint statement was in addition to the existing MOU between the two national space agencies.
U.S. Sanction Waiver for India
The first issue to consider here is whether the sanctions imposed on Russia may impact its cooperation with India. More importantly, could these sanctions impact the Indian space program? While Russia expected these sanctions, what has arguably caught it by surprise is the swift nature of the sanctions and the collective manner in which they have been imposed. Primary among the instruments used to impose U.S. sanctions has been CAATSA, or the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. CAATSA sanctions usually comprise various legal orders, such as executive orders, as well as congressional laws. These sanctions, if implemented wholly, would have a damaging effect on the importation of items from Russia by India—whether for military procurement, oil and gas purchases, or securing space-based paraphernalia.
There is ongoing discussion of the possibility that the Biden administration could grant India a waiver from the CAATSA sanctions on Russia, but uncertainty looms large at the moment. India abstained from a procedural resolution at the UN Security Council that called for an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. India also abstained from a vote on whether the UN Human Rights Council should hold an “urgent debate” on Ukraine. A few days later, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the issue of “US Policy Towards India,” the question of a potential CAATSA waiver for India came up repeatedly. In response, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu told senators that the question was still being considered by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Lu also suggested that India’s stance toward the Ukraine conflict was gradually evolving in a reassuring way. Interestingly, a day before the hearing, Axios reported that a strongly worded cable dispatched to diplomats in U.S. embassies across various countries had been recalled the day after it was sent. Before the recall, this cable conveyed the need to communicate to India that “to call for dialogue” during the war in Ukraine placed it “in Russia’s camp.”
At the same time, it is noteworthy that there have been efforts to introduce waivers for India from CAATSA by Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn. They stated in a letter to Biden that there are legitimate national security imperatives to grant India a waiver for the purchase of S-400 Triumf air defense systems from Russia. The letter highlighted that India had reduced its overall purchases from Russia by almost half from 2016 onward, compared to the preceding five-year period. Lu reiterated this observation in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 2.
Reorienting India’s Space Industry Away From Russia
However, sanctions are just one piece of the puzzle for India. The second issue is the physical damage inflicted on production facilities in Ukraine that were storing certain hardware equipment belonging to ISRO. India has a framework agreement with Ukraine for cooperation in space that led ISRO to decide in 2019 to test its semi-cryogenic engine (SCE-200) in Ukraine. The SCE-200 was expected to be a huge technological leap for India as it would have raised the carrying capacity of ISRO’s GSLV MkIII rocket from 4 tons to 7.5 tons. However, there are reports that the facility for testing the SCE-200 may have been damaged during the conflict. This may have a cascading effect on India’s human spaceflight program, Gaganyaan, which was to be launched using the GSLV MkIII. Incidentally, the astronauts selected for the Gaganyaan mission were trained in Russia as well, with India only recently operationalizing a “basic” or “ad hoc” astronaut training facility near Bangalore. However, even that ad hoc facility can only be used by astronauts who have first completed basic training at Russia’s Gagarin Research and Test Cosmonaut Training Center.
Therefore, it appears that sanctions and damage to critical space infrastructure may significantly delay the timelines for ISRO’s missions. Could this be the wake-up call needed for India to chart out a long-term course for its domestic space industry? Much of the testing of space equipment in the United States is done by leading private enterprises. India’s domestic private space industry is still at a very formative stage and cannot possibly be expected to do all the testing and manufacturing required by ISRO, although that is showing encouraging signs of change.
Again, international private players could be provided contracts as well. However, given that missions of national importance such as Gaganyaan would likely dictate that any intellectual property created must be owned by ISRO, international private players may not be content with being subcontractors in such a situation. That being said, the Department of Space did announce in 2020 that foreign players would be welcome to set up their own facilities in India, and it was recently reported that the Indian government plans to allow more foreign direct investment in the Indian space sector, although concrete policy frameworks in this regard have been elusive.
Meanwhile, India has steadily expanded the scope of its space cooperation activities with other countries, particularly countries that are leading the Space 2.0 industry such as Luxembourg. The recent MOU signed with Luxembourg ”intends to foster the collaboration between private companies of both countries active in the space sector.” This is promising, since Luxembourg has been at the forefront of encouraging new-age space companies to innovate in various realms, including 3D printing and space mining. On a multilateral level, the Artemis Accords pioneered by the United States should also merit serious consideration by India, as future cooperation with Russia could be fraught with risks and uncertainties. Even though the Artemis Human Landing System (HLS) program to land a crew on the moon has been delayed because of protracted litigation between SpaceX and Blue Origin, the accords themselves have gained wider acceptance over time, with a total of sixteen countries having signed them.
In the end, India’s relationship with the largest global private space player—SpaceX—could demonstrate what may be in store for private space players. While Elon Musk has justifiably garnered much praise and acclaim for supplying Starlink terminals to Ukraine, his commercial operations in India are a bit more complicated. India has thus far been treading vigilantly regarding SpaceX. For instance, ISRO’s recent submission to the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs discussed conducting an unprecedented nineteen avoidance maneuvers to avoid collision between the Starlink constellation and ISRO’s satellites. Furthermore, NewSpace India Limited, the commercial arm of ISRO, recently awarded a contract for launching the GSAT-24 satellite to Arianespace onboard the Ariane 5. This is despite the overall cost of an Ariane 5 launch being considerably greater than a launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Lastly, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Department of Telecommunications recently censured SpaceX for launching pre-bookings for its Starlink service in India without having the requisite licenses and authorizations to offer the service in India. It could very well be the case that it is imprudent to read too much into all these incidents, as they relate only to a single company. However, at the end of the day, any move toward far-reaching space reforms in India would necessarily involve looking at how such firms are treated. If India is to gradually wean itself off of reliance on other countries’ space infrastructure, it must strive to create its own. Encouraging private players to become more involved would be a good place to start.
As the war in Ukraine unfolds, it is evident that it has not only redefined the goalposts in terms of changing long-standing security principles, but also affected India’s technological outcomes in outer space. Perhaps the conflict will serve as another reminder to India of the fragility of supply chains in the space ecosystem and impel it to double down on diversifying its engagement partners and pushing ahead with its space reforms with renewed vigor. Observers of the Indian space program will pay close attention to whether it manages to do so.