The Ukraine Conflict Is Changing Global Space Cooperation

The Ukraine Conflict Is Changing Global Space Cooperation

“Since the 24th of February” – the day Russia launched its lightning war on Ukraine – “the world order has changed, and is still changing,” exclaimed ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher. These seismic shifts are transforming not only the Earth, but also the heavens, and travel between the two realms, he added.

In the webcast press conference spotlighting the ESA and NASA leaders, where the reporters and even the specific questions were intricately screened and selected by the European side, some journalists asked about the aftershocks on the space sector of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s battle to restore Russia’s Iron Curtain empire.

While the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from any interaction with the military-controlled China Manned Space Agency, a decade after Beijing launched its first taikonaut into orbit in 2003, ESA began building a tentative partnership with the rising power.

But not a single reporter queried him about the other elephant in the room: China, its new nonaggression pact with Russia, its apparent backing for the Kremlin’s threats of nuclear war with NATO, and the race to modernize ASAT missiles that could shoot down European and U.S. ICBM-tracking satellites.

Story Highlights

  • The leaders of the Russian and Chinese space agencies were only there as spectres during the ESA-NASA conclave, which was held in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine war, and have conjured the overnight restructuring of aerospace alliances throughout the world.

  • Praising NASA Administrator Bill Nelson for proposing the use of U.S. rockets to speed Europe’s stranded ExoMars rover to the dunes of Mars, Aschbacher said since the outbreak of war, the accord binding ESA and NASA has expanded and “intensified.” ESA’s billion-dollar robot was slated to lift off for the Red Planet on a Russian launcher, but the European agency, like NASA, has frozen almost all space liaisons with Moscow.

But now, space leaders and scholars stretching from Kyiv to London, along with a powerful U.S. senator, are urging ESA to swiftly suspend its collaboration with the increasingly threatening People’s Republic of China.

During the early, halcyon days of a space détente, European and Chinese mission planners launched joint training exercises as their combined astronaut squads practiced escaping from a mock Shenzhou capsule that “crashed” into the East China Sea. At the time, ESA director Rudiger Seine said the agency had “the goal of flying European astronauts on the Chinese space station from 2022.”

ESA astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Matthias Maurer, who have since flown to the International Space Station, joined the crash survival simulation under a 2015 pact linking ESA and the Chinese agency. After being airlifted from the capsule “crash scene” by a Chinese helicopter, Maurer gushed: “We truly felt the spirit of belonging to one universal astronaut family, sharing the same values, goals, and vision.”

But this facade of universalism has cracked and crumbled over the past two years. When the European Parliament moved to enforce the religious freedoms outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by imposing sanctions on the Chinese leaders running the concentration camps built to hold more than 1 million Muslim religious detainees, Beijing struck back at missile-speed.

China unveiled its own “counter-sanctions” against torchbearers across the European Parliament, including the legislature’s entire Subcommittee on Human Rights, and against free-speech champions in the U.K. Parliament. In the escalating intercontinental skirmish, EU lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to condemn China’s attack on the democratic foundations of the European Parliament.

The Beijing-Moscow strategic dyad, a united front against NATO and the forces of democracy, is imperiling Europe’s future and should trigger ESA to abandon its plans to fly astronauts to China’s orbital station, said Volodymyr Usov, who until 2021 headed the State Space Agency of Ukraine. “It’s clear to almost everyone that Putin got approval for his invasion in Beijing,” Usov told The Diplomat. “The latest information about Putin seeking Chinese support to continue the war proves this once again.”

In the wake of threats by Putin that he could launch nuclear missiles against NATO nations, repeated by the head of the Russian space agency, China seemed to underscore its backing for this apocalyptic jousting by teaming up with the Russian air force to deploy nuclear-capable bombers to provocatively “buzz” Japanese airspace during U.S. President Joe Biden’s May trip to Tokyo. Beijing’s second major strike on universal peace and freedoms was set in motion when Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, announced a “no limits” partnership with Putin, on the eve of Russia’s blitz on Ukraine. The leaders pledged to jointly oppose NATO’s expansion and “color revolutions,” or pro-democracy movements like the one that liberated post-Soviet Ukraine or the more recent popular protests that were crushed in Hong Kong.