The Brief — The Baikonur face-off
Russia needs the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but this is also fuelling a conflict with the Central Asian country which may get out of hand.
Despite its brutal aggression against Ukraine, which has devastated international diplomacy, Russia still maintains a semblance of normalcy regarding its international spaceflight programme. But there have been glitches.
For one, the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, was dismissed from the helm of Roscosmos after threatening to end cooperation with the West on the International Space Station programme following Western sanctions.
Yuri Borisov quickly replaced him and ties with Western partners, including NASA, appeared to stabilise.
Despite the war, the European Space Agency said it does not expect Russia to terminate the joint operation of the ISS, operated by a US-Russian-led international consortium of five space agencies from 15 countries. ISS is the largest artificial object in space and has been continuously manned since November 2000.
But private US enterprise became a game-changer.
As of 2020, the SpaceX Dragon rockets deliver American and European crews to the space station. Compared to them, Soyuz is a dinosaur on its way to extinction, although Russian cosmonauts will continue to utilise this launcher.
For this, the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, built in the 1950s when the Central Asian country was a Soviet republic, remains key. This is where the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched on 4 October 1957. The next milestone was Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space mission on 12 April 1961.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has continued to use the Baikonur cosmodrome, leasing the site from Kazakhstan since 1994.
It has also tried to reduce its dependence on Baikonur by starting construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far Eastern Amur region near the Chinese border in 2012.
However, the Vostochny cosmodrome project has been dogged by reports of corruption, with dozens of people involved in the planning and construction of the facility arrested on embezzlement and fraud charges in recent years.
In Baikonur, Kazakhstan, as a host country, has made efforts to secure the gradual move of launches to ecologically safe rockets while abolishing Proton rockets that use highly toxic heptyl fuel. A company, Baiterek, was created jointly with Russia for this purpose.
But problems quickly started to accumulate. Reportedly, Baiterek has run up a Russian debt equivalent to some $30 million, while Borisov, the new chief of Russia’s Roscosmos, publicly criticised Kazakh Communications Minister Baghdat Musin for what he said was a decision to postpone the construction of a new spacecraft launch area at Baikonur.
In fact, the project is in jeopardy largely because of Western sanctions against Russia. Nobody can blame Kazakhstan for worrying it can no longer use Russian rockets for commercial launches.
Musin called Borisov’s criticism “a diplomatic miscalculation” and, as a next development, Kazakh authorities impounded the property of TsENKI, one of the enterprises of the Baikonur space centre.
Russian propaganda was quick to seek geopolitical motivation for an issue that could be solved at a technical level.
According to a well-informed blogger, Russian journalists and propagandists have been instructed to highlight the coverage of the impounded property by saying that this move came as a result of the visit of US State Secretary Anthony Blinken to Kazakhstan.
Russian propaganda often misfires by blowing issues out of proportion, to the extent that they can no longer be solved by preserving the Russian interest.
A recent example was the decision by Kazakhstan to close its trade mission in Russia, which was overblown in Russian media whereas Kazakh diplomats say this is a minor bureaucratic reshuffle.
No one can predict how the Baikonur face-off will evolve.
Russia has every interest to keep good relations with Kazakhstan, but it is precisely in its relations with such countries that Russia conducts a schizophrenic policy that usually leads to disaster.
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Don’t forget to check out our Economy Brief and the EU Politics Decoded for a roundup of weekly news across Europe.
Look out for…
- Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič receives Laurence Boone, French Secretary of State for European Affairs.
- Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans meets with representatives of Italian institutions and business community at Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
- Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis participates in conference titled “Baltic Nordic EU Conversations 2023” in Riga.
- Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski in Łódź Voivodeship, Poland, meets with representatives of local farmers.
- EU – North Macedonia Stabilisation and Association Council meeting on Friday.