Russia looks to China for collaboration in space but faces isolation over Ukraine invasion

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HELSINKI — Roscosmos is looking to China as a supplier of vital space industry components and a partner in missions following the invasion of Ukraine, but sanctions could still heavily impact any new plans.

Russian space agency head Dmitry Rogozin told Russian media Feb. 26 that sanctions imposed by Western countries would hit supplies of microelectronics necessary for spacecraft.

“With all our efforts to promote the Russian national microelectronic industry… it is impossible to produce everything,” Rogozin said, adding that, “We have excellent relations with China … and we will solve these problems.”

Russia is understood to have turned to Chinese state-owned aerospace companies for alternatives following sanctions imposed in 2014 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. But the invasion of Ukraine is having far greater repercussions. 

Reuters reported Feb. 27 that China so far does not seem to be helping Russia avoid sanctions. Chinese banks and other entities could face sanctions themselves and loss of access to the U.S. financial system by doing business with Russia, the report states.

China has been seen as trying to balance its response to the Ukrainian conflict. Beijing is urging restraint and has declined to describe Russia’s actions as an invasion, but appears to be careful to avoid being caught in the repercussions faced by Russia.

“China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners of coordination. Our relationship features non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of any third party. China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent. We always decide on our position and policy based on the merits of the matter itself,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a regular press conference Feb. 28, underlining that Moscow and Beijing were not allies.

“I think China increasingly finds itself in between a rock and a hard place,” says Matti Nojonen, a professor of Chinese culture and economy at the University of Lapland, noting that while Beijing has moved toward a closer relationship with Moscow, nearly the whole world community is turning against Russia. 

“I think they [China] are very carefully monitoring now what they’re doing and what kind of reactions this has created. I think it must have surprised China how this united all the Western powers … and now it turns out that even countries like Kazakhstan are turning and criticizing what Putin did.” Nojonen told SpaceNews.

The U.S. State Department in January also imposed sanctions on subsidiaries of China’s main space contractors, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) under the Arms Export Control Act and the Export Administration Act.

Roscosmos says it is also looking for new partnerships following the breakdown in relations. Rogozin told the TASS news agency that he had instructed a team to initiate negotiations with Beijing on the coordination and mutual technical support of deep space missions.

Sino-Russian cooperation has grown in recent years, including agreements for cooperation on the Chinese Chang’e-6 and Chang’e-7 and Russian Luna 27 missions, a joint data center for lunar and deep space exploration and a proposed joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Question marks over the respective roles in the lunar base plan emerge however with an expected heavy impact of sanctions on Russian space activities. The ILRS roadmap envisions a series of launches in the early 2030s by new super heavy-lift launch vehicles to be developed separately by both Russia and China. The ILRS aims to establish a robotic research base, likely targeting the lunar south pole, according to a roadmpap released in June 2021.

Other missions could now see Chinese collaboration in place of American involvement. Rogozin said the Venera-D mission to Venus could no longer feature U.S. involvement. While discussions between American and Russian scientists on a potential role for NASA on mission, the project had experienced extensive delays.

While International Space Station operations remain normal, cooperation with Russia elsewhere has come to a swift end.

Roscosmos said in a pair of tweets Feb. 26, citing a statement by Rogozin, that the agency is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from French Guiana.

The European Space Agency said Feb. 28 that it is “very unlikely” that its ExoMars mission will launch this September because of sanctions on Russia and the wider context of its invasion of Ukraine. 

India meanwhile has so far refrained from criticizing Russia. In December the pair agreed to strengthen cooperation in the space sector, including human spaceflight programs and satellite navigation, as part of a wider set of agreements.