Russia and its ‘diversionary space race’?

Russia and its ‘diversionary space race’?
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The International Space Station (ISS), that hub of extra-terrestrial cooperation, recently announced that Russia will be withdrawing from its team from 2025. Russia plans to set up a separate orbital space station by 2030. As a result, there has been much debate about what this means in terms of Russia-US  and Sino-Russian relations. However, little attention has been paid to the domestic implications of Russia’s decision: is it an attempt to divert attention from the ongoing saga with Alexei Navalny and muster patriotic fervor?

What is happening with Russia and the ISS?

The ISS was created in 1998 and involved cooperation from Russia, the US, Japan, Canada and those countries that formed the European Space Agency. Since then, 18 countries have sent astronauts to the ISS and it has often been lauded as one of the most impressive attempts at international cooperation. However, in April 2021, Russia announced that it had plans to leave the ISS

in 2025 and start work on its own space station. This follows on from the announcement in September 2020 by Roscosmos – Russia’s space agency – that it was aiming to send a mission to Venus and build a lunar space station with China.

International implications of Russia’s announcement

There has been much speculation surrounding Russia’s choice to leave the space partnership of the ISS, with concerns that it may be a result of tensions with both the US, and the West more generally. The announcement by Roscosmos comes at a time when relationships with the West are already strained as a result of the accumulation of Russian troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border, along with the Kremlin’s decision to imprison opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as well as thousands of his supporters. Russia’s exit from the ISS has also been viewed by some as being part of a pivot by Moscow towards Beijing, as they have also announced that they plan to create a lunar space station with China. This would add to the pattern of cooperation that Moscow and Beijing envisage, including the possibility of forming a military alliance. All of this is indicative of Russia’s desire to decrease its cooperation with the West and demonstrate that it is forging a new path.

An added benefit at home, too?

Although the international implications of the decision to leave the ISS have been carefully scrutinised, the domestic impact has not been as closely examined. At the moment, Putin is losing popular support domestically. This is most likely in response to the incarceration and subsequent treatment of Alexei Navalny and his supporters, his inconsistent Covid-19 response, which some have described as confusing, and the unpopular pension reforms that were introduced a couple of years ago. It is entirely possible that the decision to announce Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS was timed to rally support for a project that would boost his domestic popularity and stir national pride. 

Whilst domestic prosperity may have taken a backseat to international interests in informing Russia’s decision to leave the ISS, choosing this moment to break away from other countries at the ISS does create a distraction from domestic problems. This move is in line with diversionary war theory. Instead of a ‘diversionary war’, Putin has created a ‘diversionary space race’: a patriotic project to garner support for his leadership that may momentarily alter the focus of the population from the issues and troubles that they have with the Kremlin. 

Putin has acted similarly in the past. In 2014, he annexed Crimea, on the basis that ethnic Russians living there needed protection and that it was, in fact, the property of Russia. The Kremlin was able to garner a significant amount of domestic support for the move and it certainly served to distract from domestic issues at the time. Domestic problems in 2014 included economic woes, low living standards for many Russians and weak parliamentary elections. A pattern has begun to reveal itself – where international strategies are created with domestic amnesia as their end goal.

Patriotism stronger than dissatisfaction?

Russia’s decision to leave the ISS this spring may have been meant as a ‘diversionary space race’. Time will tell as to whether it succeeds in this mission but there is a chance that it could boost patriotic fervour and support for Putin’s leadership. Given the news that Russia plans to be the first to make a feature film in space on the ISS (before their withdrawal) and the recent patriotic Victory Day celebrations in May (designed to reassure Russians both of their country’s greatness and of their leader’s concern for them), Russia’s decision to leave the ISS could be part of a wider and grander plan to restore confidence in the country and its leader. These developments act as a tool with which Putin can neatly package and sell Russia’s innovation and leadership. That being said, the level of grievance surrounding events with Alexei Navalny should not be underestimated. The fact that there have been recent court deliberations which labelled Navalny’s organisation as ‘extremist’, as well as restrictions on his organisation’s activities, will only entrench some of the dissatisfaction and anger felt by many Russians. Put simply, Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS may divert attention from politics on the ground, but not for long. 

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

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