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A sucecssful SpaceX Crew Dragon mission will allow NASA to end its dependence on Russia for accessing the International Space Station, which brings with it geopolitical implications. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Eagle, the Bear, and the (other) Dragon: US-Russian relations in the SpaceX Era


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The May 30 launch of two US astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first human launch into orbit from US soil in nearly nine years, raises several questions about the future of US-Russian cooperation in space (Snyder and Kramer; O’Callaghan), but also about US-Russian relations more generally. US astronauts have been launching aboard Russian spacecraft since 1995 (Uri), but with NASA’s retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US human spaceflight program became reliant on Russian launch capabilities. Now that SpaceX showed its ability to perform this task, and plans more launches in the future, one must ask whether this development will help or hinder relations between the U. and Russia.

While one cannot predict the Russian response to recent events, or the effect of the SpaceX launch on US-Russian relations, analysis of possible scenarios helps identify some steps the US can take today to prevent a cooling of relations in the future.

The short-term likelihood of any change is minimal, considering NASA still intends to launch an astronaut aboard a Soyuz capsule in 2020 (Carter), and is talking about continued cooperation to ensure that US astronauts are onboard future Soyuz launches, and that Russian cosmonauts are on future SpaceX flights (Colas). However, it is possible that US-Russian relations will grow increasingly tense over time because of these new developments. It is important, then, to examine potential scenarios, as well as explore how Russia might react, if we hope to offset or mitigate any potentially dangerous consequences.

This article first analyzes the issue from the International Relations (IR) perspectives of Realism and Liberalism. While Realists likely see this development of SpaceX launch capabilities as a positive for preserving the US status as a great power and reducing its dependence on Russian launch, Liberalists would be divided in their perceptions. On one hand, they recognize the benefits of spaceflight conducted by private corporations rather than government. On the other hand, these benefits are balanced by the weakening of interdependence between the two countries, suggesting a higher possibility of conflict. While one cannot predict the Russian response to recent events, or the effect of the SpaceX launch on US-Russian relations, analysis of possible scenarios helps identify some steps the US can take today to prevent a cooling of relations in the future.

IR worldviews

International Relations scholarship uses several different lenses to describe and explain global political events and decisions. Two of the most prominent of these lenses, or worldviews, are Realism and Liberalism. Without diving too much into either worldview, because that is not the purpose of this article, the main differences between the two involve the likelihood of conflict and the opportunities for cooperation between states.

Realism has been the dominant paradigm for more than a century but is also heavily criticized because of its pessimistic nature. Realists see international politics as inherently conflictual; war is always a possibility for which states must prepare, and cooperation is temporary and occurs only for as long as it is in the interests of all involved parties (Waltz). In contrast, Liberalism is much more optimistic about the possibility of cooperation between states, particularly when states interact with one another through international organizations, trade, and international law, all of which constrain state behavior and reduce tendencies towards conflict (Keohane and Nye).

There are variations within each worldview. John Mearsheimer offers one that he refers to as Offensive Realism (Mearsheimer), but this broad and simplistic overview is sufficient for our purposes. The question is, given these differences between Realism and Liberalism, how would members of each worldview interpret recent events and their consequences for US-Russian relations?

Liberalism

The Liberalist worldview in international relations generally sees states as having the ability to cooperate on important matters, and then having an interest in preserving cooperation once it exists. One factor that often contributes to cooperation is when two states are mutually dependent on one another. This Liberalist theory, known as Interdependence Theory, suggests that as the level of mutual dependence between states grows, the likelihood of war between them declines. The logic is that interdependent relations are mutually beneficial and costly to break, so that as mutual dependence grows, both states are less likely to risk the loss of those benefits that would come with war. Scholars typically test this theory using levels of trade between states, but in its broadest form the theory suggests that all types of interdependence should reduce the likelihood of war, including student exchanges, membership on common organizations, and, of course, the exchange of money for space launch capabilities.

NASA relied on Russian launch capabilities for nearly ten years, allowing the US to preserve its human spaceflight program. In exchange, Russia received $80–90 million per US astronaut that took a ride on a Russian craft. While this was not a perfectly interdependent relationship, it was mutually beneficial. One could argue that the Russians needed money more than the US needed to use Russian launch facilities, but human spaceflight is at least one measure of a state’s power, so it was important for the US to retain its astronaut program even if it might mean higher levels of dependence on Russia. On the other hand, while $90 million is a decent amount considering the Russian space program’s budget ($2.77 billion) (Colas), it is not a particularly large sum compared to the overall Russian gross domestic product (reported to be $1.75 trillion). The loss of $90 million hurts, but is not going to break the Russian economy. On the other hand, it might compel the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to take some drastic measures to make up the loss of more than 3% of its budget.

Space is one of the few areas in which the US and Russia continue to cooperate, despite tension between the two countries in other areas and domains.

From this Liberalist perspective, there are several reasons the development of SpaceX’s human launch capabilities poses a risk to future US-Russian relations. The US can end its reliance on Russia and stop paying money to another government for human space launch. On the Russian side, the loss of that revenue could lead to economic pain (at least within its space program, even if the larger economy does not feel the loss), or to a willingness to sell its space capabilities and knowledge to other actors—including some actors whom the US would prefer not have access to that information.

As a result, the simple Liberalist approach suggests that with the rise of SpaceX, if the US severs its space cooperation with Russia, that does not necessarily lead to war between the two countries, but does weaken their mutual dependence and therefore reduces one of the barriers to war. Space is one of the few areas in which the US and Russia continue to cooperate, despite tension between the two countries in other areas and domains. Removing this source of cooperation at least increases the risk of war between the countries, even if it is only a minor increase.

Liberalism Redux

But Liberalist thinkers have a problem simply arguing that less US-Russian cooperation increases the likelihood of war because Liberalists also generally favor the free market system. As a result, they must acknowledge the benefits of a private company taking on the roles once performed by first a US government agency (NASA) and then the Russian space agency. Compared to the $90 million each Russian launch cost the US, the cost of a SpaceX launches is $55 million per seat (Chang). That is a lot of savings for the US, and for NASA in particular, but also means that SpaceX will provide a high level of competition for the still relatively small market of individuals and countries looking for a ride into space. Thus, Russia will have a difficult time competing with private companies if those companies provide launch capabilities to more than just the US.

Using SpaceX to launch US astronauts has additional benefits besides the cost savings. From the US point of view, rather than pay Russia hard currency, the government can provide SpaceX with other types of compensation, including renting launch facilities and providing satellite launch contracts, which further reduce the need for hard currency. One danger, of course, is the risk of SpaceX developing a monopoly on human space launch from US soil, which would be antithetical to capitalist ideals, but not unheard of when it comes to government contracts. This seems unlikely since NASA provided initial competition contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing (Davenport), and considering there are other private companies, like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, developing similar capabilities (Wall).

Realism

The Realist view is perhaps the most pessimistic about future relations between the US and Russia, but that is because of the broad set of conflicting interests that naturally occur between the two countries, not simply because of SpaceX. For Realists, interdependence is never mutually beneficial: one side always feels more advantaged than the other, leaving the other feeling more vulnerable. This vulnerability is a potential source of tension between two states, suggesting that mutual dependence can be a cause of conflict rather than a means of preventing war. If true, then the severing of cooperation between the US and Russia might reduce rather than increase the likelihood of war, especially if one side feels more vulnerable because of this relationship. US astronauts, for example, are dependent on the Russian government for transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and to provide rescue craft in the event of an emergency. This is a source of vulnerability for NASA and the US, that Russia could potentially use to its advantage in a crisis. For Realists, removing those kinds of vulnerabilities makes states feel more secure, and reduces the likelihood of war.

Also, from the Realist point of view, there is no guarantee that the money the US pays to Russia goes into its civilian space programs. It can go into military uses of space, or even the broader Russian military budget. The fact that the US provides money to a foreign government, and that the Russians can disperse that money into various forms of military power, including capabilities that are directed against NATO allies and partners, is a source of danger from the Realist point of view.

Despite the suggestion that SpaceX’s ability to launch human space missions does not imperil US-Russian relations any more than was already the case, the Russian government is unlikely to simply accept and absorb a loss of revenue.

On the other hand, there are also Realist indicators for war in the future, having little to do with SpaceX. For Realists, war is always a possibility between two countries with conflicting interests, and some cooperation on space is unlikely to be enough to prevent a war if both sides want it. There has been growing tension between the two countries since at least 2002, when the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Since then, relations have steadily worsened: Russian cyber-attacks against Estonia, a NATO ally, in 2007; Russia’s 2008 occupation of South Ossetia in Georgia; its 2014 invasion of Crimea; and US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. Yet through all of that, US-Russian cooperation continued with respect to space launch and the ISS (Koren).

The broader point for Realists is that even if cooperation on space acted as some type of interdependence to reduce the likelihood of war, that influence was minimal and so the loss of that cooperation provides no greater inducement to war than any of the other factors that generate tension between the two countries. On the other hand, the vulnerability that the status quo creates for the US might be enough to start a war, if one side wanted to use it to gain an advantage.

The Russian response

Despite the suggestion that SpaceX’s ability to launch human space missions does not imperil US-Russian relations any more than was already the case, the Russian government is unlikely to simply accept and absorb a loss of revenue. Each US astronaut that launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan brought the Russian space agency $80–90 million.

One highly unlikely response would be for Russia to replace those US astronauts with additional cosmonauts, and increasing Russian participation in the ISS program. To do so would impose higher costs on Russia’s own space program, which seems implausible given Putin’s lack of interest in civilian space, at least compared to military uses of space.

Instead, there are two likely paths that the Russians will take as US demand for launch declines. One possibility is that Russia will try to replace the lost US revenue by launching astronauts from other countries, perhaps those trying to build a human space program. Russia could also return to space tourism and offer launches to those willing to pay for the experience. There were already indications before the successful SpaceX launch that Russia planned to revisit space tourism in 2021 (Malik). While this approach would not be particularly problematic for the United States, and might even promote greater cooperation on the ISS if more countries become involved in human spaceflight, there also may be little future demand for Russian space launch capabilities. If SpaceX, and some of the other commercial space launch companies, provide cheaper and/or safer alternatives for launch than those in Russia, then space tourists and bourgeoning astronaut programs may turn to these private western companies instead of Russia.

The second, more troubling, approach that Russia might take is to scale back its civilian space programs (or even eliminate them altogether), reduce its involvement in the ISS, and attempt to recover this lost revenue from the sale of its space capabilities—essentially, ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear payloads—and the knowledge of how to build and operate those capabilities. Brain drain was a concern at the end of the Cold War, as Soviet nuclear experts lost their jobs or stopped receiving paychecks, and many chose to offer their services to other countries (Drew). A similar type of threat would exist if Russia shutters its civilian space program.

Not only could Russia cut funding for its civilian space program, but Russia could divert that money to the military. So even as the US saves money on its civilian space launch, the Russians could turn around and put money, previously earmarked for space, into its military capabilities. Especially from a Realist perspective, this would increase what is known as the security dilemma, where even if Russia does this for what it believes are defensive reasons, the US and the rest of NATO will likely perceive it to be evidence of Russia’s hostile intentions.

A program subsidizing the human spaceflight programs of other countries is the best option for the US at this point, because it would provide benefits to all the relevant parties.

Regardless of what Russia chooses to do, there is value to the US in helping Russia retain its civilian space program, and in helping reduce the effects of the loss of revenue that will accompany the rise of commercial space launch success. There is also value in helping other countries develop peaceful space programs, particularly if doing so involves more multinational involvement in the ISS as well as preserving cooperation between the US and Russia. There is one path the US can take that accomplishes all these objectives while also taking advantage of the capabilities provided by SpaceX: using its cost savings to subsidize launches on Russian spacecraft for countries that do not yet have a human spaceflight program.

Conclusions and recommendations

Although there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding future US-Russian relations in the wake of the successful SpaceX launch, there is unlikely to be much change in the short term, given the publicly stated intent by both governments to continue cooperating in space. In the longer term, however, the cost savings of using commercial US launches rather than Russian launches is likely to not only reduce revenue going to Russia’s space program, but also undercut attempts to replace US astronauts with those of other countries or space tourists.

As a result, we cannot say definitively that a decline in space cooperation will lead to greater tension, conflict, or even war between the two states, but the decrease in cooperation will remove at least one source of restraint that prevents conflict between the US and Russia. Perhaps more disturbing are the ways that Russia could attempt to replace that lost revenue. This does not mean the US should continue paying a higher price simply to help preserve Russia’s civilian space program.

Even if the US does not want to pay the higher cost to launch American astronauts from Russia, one option would be to use some of the money saved by switching over to private launch and subsidizing astronauts from other countries using Russian launch facilities. One possible recipient of this is the United Arab Emirates, which built a space program and is looking to develop astronauts for human spaceflight (Bartels). Offering Russian launch subsidies to other countries provides several benefits: the US would still save some money on its launches, it would preserve Russia’s income for its civilian space program, it would expedite development of other countries’ human space flight programs (increasing those countries’ interest and potential collaboration in future space missions), and, perhaps most importantly, preserve the interdependent relationship between the US and Russia while reducing US vulnerability. It will also increase interdependence between the US, Russia, and whichever countries participate in the program.

This will not be the kind of direct, bilateral interdependence that existed for the last decade, or that Liberalists believe can prevent war. But it will serve the same purpose of increasing the costs associated with going to war, and in doing so, be another factor that contributes to cooperation rather than conflict. A program subsidizing the human spaceflight programs of other countries is the best option for the US at this point, because it would provide benefits to all the relevant parties—the US, SpaceX and other private launch companies, and Russia—and the biggest winner might be those countries just beginning to set their sights on space.

References

Bartels, Meghan. “The UAE Wants to Send People to Mars. But first, a Practice Round on Earth,” Space.com, 21 April 2020.

Carter, Jamie. “Despite SpaceX Success NASA Will Pay Russia $90 Million To Take U.S. Astronaut to the ISS,” Forbes, 3 June 2020.

Chang, Kenneth. “There are 2 Seats Left for This Trip to the International Space Station” The New York Times, 5 March 2020.

Colas, Romain. “SpaceX Launch is ‘Wakeup Call’ for Russia’s Space Program,” The Moscow Times, 31 May 2020.

Davenport, Christian. “No One Thought SpaceX Would Beat Boeing. Elon Musk Proved Them Wrong,” The Washington Post, 21 May 2020.

Drew, Christopher. “CIA Director Warns of Soviet Nuclear ‘Brain Drain’,” Chicago Tribune, 16 January 1992.

Keohane, Robert and Joseph Nye. Power and Interdependence (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1977).

Koren, Marina. “The Chill of U.S.-Russia Relations Creeps Into Space,” The Atlantic, 11 January 2019.

Malik, Tariq. “Russia Says it Will Launch 2 Tourists into Orbit for Space Adventures in 2021,” Space.com, 23 February 2019.

Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).

O’Callaghan, Jonathan. “SpaceX Makes History with First-Ever Human Rocket Launch for NASA,” Forbes, 30 May 2020.

Snyder, Alison and Miriam Kramer. “A Reckoning for Russia’s Space Program,” Axios, 26 May 2020.

Uri, John. “Space Station 20th: Launch of Mir 18 Crew,” NASA website.

Wall, Mike. “Four New US Spaceships May Start Launching People into Space This Year,” Space.com, 24 January 2020.

Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979).


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