In April 2015, the commander of Russia’s Space Forces, Alexander Golovko, announced plans to overhaul a Soviet-built space tracking facility known as NIP-16 and re-integrate it into Russia’s network by 2020. Located in Yevpatoria, a town situated on the Crimean Peninsula, the facility — built in the 1960s for tracking space probes bound for Venus and Mars — was among the spoils of Russia’s swift yet bloodless seizure of the region from independent Ukraine in March 2014.

For Russia’s ailing space program, the government’s decision to annex Crimea was a mixed — though largely negative — blessing. The NIP-16 facility presents Russia with an opportunity to reestablish communications coverage that was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, but the program has suffered under the pressure of Russia’s economic crisis and is now vulnerable to future Western economic sanctions against Russia.

The NIP-16 ground station in Yevpatoria, Crimea, was built to communicate with deep space missions using, among other assets, this decommissioned ADU-1000 transmitting array consisting of eight 16-meter antennas. Credit: Rumlin / Wikicommons

The NIP-16 ground station in Yevpatoria, Crimea, was built to communicate with deep space missions using, among other assets, this decommissioned ADU-1000 transmitting array consisting of
eight 16-meter antennas. Credit: Rumlin / Wikicommons

Ukraine’s space agency, and the country’s small but highly specialized space industry, have been hit harder than Russia by the conflict over Crimea. Sure, NIP-16 was a valuable facility that Ukraine could be rent out to astronomers for research. But beyond that facility, there was little more than an infrequently used cosmonaut training center lost with Crimea’s annexation.

The real problem was the political impact on Ukraine’s industrial ties with Russia, the main customer for the two flagship enterprises of Ukraine’s space industry: launch vehicle, spacecraft and components manufacturer Yuzhmash in Dnipro, and a control system manufacturer in the city of Kharkiv. Replacing Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, as a customer is proving difficult.

“Ukraine has tried to develop cooperation with the U.S., the EU, China, India and so on … but all of these efforts are still just diplomatic. There are still no real and sustainable results,” said Pavel Luzin, a space industry expert at Russia’s Perm State University. Ukraine’s space industry is still struggling to move beyond its traditional relationship with Russia.

Industrial Breakdown

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s restive eastern regions, prompted a widerange breakdown of political and economic ties between Moscow and Kiev – mostly through tit-for-tat sanctions and trade embargoes. This had a major impact in the military-industrial sphere, of which both Russia and Ukraine’s space industries are major components.

The Russian and Ukrainian space industries are cut from the same cloth. They are legacy assets, inherited by the newly formed independent governments of Ukraine and Russia in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991. Industrial ties between the two lumbered on, but this was largely out of necessity.

“The Ukrainian space industry has a huge problem, and that is adaptation to the global market economy,” said Luzin. It has survived largely as a component provider for Russia’s space industry. This role is now in serious jeopardy. Though the Ukrainian government did not embargo the import or export of space components to and from Russia, the political mood in Moscow may shut the door.

“It is certainly Russia’s intention to ultimately sever its dependence on Ukraine’s space industry, an objective which will likely hurt Ukraine more than Russia because of the nature of the circumstances at play today” said Phil Smith, a senior space industry analyst with the Alexandria, Virginia-based Tauri Group consultancy. “Ukraine, of course, could pursue stronger relationships with ESA and various civil space agencies in the West, a strategy that would make sense given the high potential for mutual benefits. I think Russia would prefer the same to be true of its dependence on Kazakhstan visa- vis Baikonur, but this is a difficult relationship to terminate.”

After the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea, an element of economic nationalism has emerged in Moscow pushing for “import substitution” in all sectors. In other words, Russian manufacturers should make parts for Russian rockets, not Ukrainian manufacturers. And Ukraine should certainly not be building rockets for Russia, considering the completion of Russia’s new Angara rocket, which will eventually replace Proton and launch from Russia’s Far East, not neighboring Kazakhstan.

Such sentiment has made its strongest mark on the troubled Sea Launch project. In recent years, Sea Launch has been a Russian and Ukrainian dominated enterprise. The Zenit launch vehicles used by Sea Launch are produced by Ukraine’s Yuzhmash, but 70 percent of the components are provided by Russia’s RSC Energia.

In February 2015, Roscosmos spokesman Igor Burenkov told the Izvestia newspaper that the agency would stop buying Zenit rockets and use Angara instead – leading to speculation that Sea Launch would be refitted and put back into action as a platform for the Angara family of rockets. But in March 2016, Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov said Sea Launch is being sold to a yet unnamed investor.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is looking to new markets to fill the void being left by Russia. The planned co-development of the Cyclone-4 launch vehicle with Brazil was canceled in 2015, but Ukraine has had more luk with Europe: Yuzhmash produces the RD-843 engine for the upper stage of Arianspace’s Vega launcher. Ukraine’s most high-profile Western partnership is with U.S. launch firm Orbital ATK, for whom Yuzhmash produces the first stage for the Antares rocket.

But the question remains, said Luzin, “what can Ukraine supply other than Soviet-era components for launch vehicles?”

Since 1991, its industry has produced just 28 spacecraft, and the launch vehicle market is becoming increasingly competitive and innovative.

Matthew Bodner writes about international affairs, defense and space for the Moscow Times, an English-language weekly newspaper.