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Baikonur Cosmodrome crisis: Kazakhstan seizes control of Russia’s key launch facility

The Baikonur Cosmodrome. Wikimedia Commons.

A High-Stakes Space Tug-of-War: In a dramatic turn of events, Kazakhstan seizes control of Russia's key launch facility at Baikonur, putting the future of the Russian space program in jeopardy.

New Battlefront for Russia – The Space Race

As the ongoing war in Ukraine enters its second year, Russia faces mounting consequences on multiple fronts, including its space program. The latest blow came when Kazakhstan seized control of a critical launch complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, putting the future of Russia’s space endeavors in jeopardy.

The Unraveling: Ukraine War’s Ripple Effects on Russia’s Space Program

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the international community has responded with sanctions, embargoes, and canceled agreements, severely impacting Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. Notably, this included the termination of its participation in the International Space Station (ISS) and the cancellation of several cooperative agreements.

Baikonur Under Siege: Kazakhstan Takes Control

On March 7, 2023, Kazakhstan seized the Biaterek launch complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – Russia’s primary launch site since 1955. The Kazakh government has impounded Russian assets at the Center for Utilization of Ground-based Space Infrastructure (TsENKI), a Roscosmos subsidiary, and imposed travel restrictions on Russian officials.

The Debt Dilemma: The Baiterek Program Stumbles

The seizure was primarily attributed to Roscosmos’ failure to pay its debts to the Kazakh government, amounting to over 13.5 billion tenges ($29.7 million). These debts are linked to the Baiterek program, a Kazakh-Russian joint venture concerning the development of the Soyuz-5 booster.

Fractured Relations: Borisov’s “Diplomatic Miscalculation”

Another factor in the seizure was the “incorrect behavior” of Yuri Borisov, the head of Roscosmos since 2022. Borisov criticized Kazakhstan’s Minister of Communications, Bagdat Musin, over construction delays of the Soyuz-5 launch pad, leading to a diplomatic spat.

Collateral Damage: Russia’s Space Program Grounded

The seizure has hampered the construction of a new launch pad at Baikonur, potentially jeopardizing the Soyuz-5 rocket’s development. To date, Russia has invested $810 million in the booster, the new launch pad, and related efforts – all at risk of becoming a total loss.

A Storied Past: Baikonur’s Role in Space History

Baikonur Cosmodrome, built in the 1950s, has a rich history, witnessing the launches of Sputnik 1, Vostok 1, and Vostok 6. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1994, Russia has leased the site from Kazakhstan, using it as its primary space complex. At this very location, the first man, Yuri Gagarin, ventured into space on April 12th, 1961, aboard Vostok 1, and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, followed suit on June 16th, 1963, on Vostok 6.

Seeking Alternatives: The Vostochny Cosmodrome Saga

Russia began constructing the Vostochny Cosmodrome in 2012 to reduce dependence on Kazakhstan. However, this project has faced delays due to embezzlement and fraud allegations, leading to the arrest of several officials.

A Bleak Outlook: Russia’s Space Program at a Crossroads

With limited launch capacity at other sites, the Baikonur seizure has effectively grounded Roscosmos for the time being. The future of Russia’s space program hangs in the balance as it navigates the fallout from the war in Ukraine and attempts to find a resolution with Kazakhstan.

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