Russia Threatened to Crash the ISS. Can It?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has amped up tensions in space, resulting in delayed missions and an uncertain future for the International Space Station.
The ISS over the Nile in November 2021. Image: NASA Johnson

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has drawn shock and condemnation from around the world, and now its repercussions are extending off the planet and into space. 

In a series of incendiary tweets last week, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, threatened to crash the International Space Station (ISS) over the United States, Europe, China, or India.

“The correction of the station's orbit, and its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near-Earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships,” Rogozin tweeted on Thursday, in response to sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States.


 “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit that falls into the United States or Europe?” he continued. “There is also the option of dropping the 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?”

Such an inflammatory threat no doubt adds to the atmosphere of anxiety produced by the Russian invasion and its possible consequences. The good news is, though, that while it’s true that Russia controls the ISS propulsion system, even if it abandoned its responsibility to keep the station aloft, the crew, spacecraft, and people on Earth would not be in danger as it would take possibly years to deorbit, according to The Verge, allowing for ample time to come up with a solution. 

More importantly, it is incredibly unlikely that Russia would take such drastic action given that the station is currently home to two of its own cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, and contains decades of Russian scientific investment. 

It’s also worth noting that Rogozin has a long history of bombastic statements, especially in response to sanctions. Perhaps most infamously, Rogozin threatened to withhold Russian rocket rides to the ISS after he was personally targeted by sanctions in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, proclaiming that American astronauts could try to reach the station by trampoline. 


At that time, Russia was the only nation capable of ferrying crews to and from the ISS, but the nation never came close to making good on Rogozin’s threat of refusing passage to the station. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, a US-based spacecraft, has started carrying crews to and from the station, beginning in 2019, ending Russia’s monopoly on rides to the ISS.

NASA responded to Rogozin’s recent tweets by reiterating that all of the station’s international partners, including Roscosmos, are working to maintain "the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station."

"The new export control measures will continue to allow U.S.-Russia civil space operations," NASA said in a statement. "No changes are planned to the agency's support for ongoing in-orbit and ground-station operations."

But while there’s no reason to be anxious about a giant space station falling on your head anytime soon, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having real consequences for the space sector. Russia has retaliated against sanctions from Europe by suspending launches of its Soyuz vehicle and withdrawing personnel from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). 

“Regarding the Soyuz launch campaign from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, we take note of the Roscosmos decision to withdraw its workforce from Kourou,” ESA said in a statement following a crisis meeting held on Monday. “We will consequently assess for each European institutional payload under our responsibility the appropriate launch service based notably on launch systems currently in operation and the upcoming Vega C and Ariane 6 launchers.”


“We deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine,” the statement said. “We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programmes but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation.”

ESA is also ruminating on the fate of its ExoMars mission, a joint project with Russia, which is due to launch a rover to the red planet later this year to search for signs of life on Mars. ExoMars has already suffered a delay from its original 2020 launch due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic. ESA said in its Monday statement that a 2022 launch is now also “unlikely” in the midst of the current geopolitical turmoil.

Tensions between Russia and its international space partners have simmered since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine stands to permanently strain or sever many of these relationships. Scientists across the world have touted the success of international cooperation with Russia in space as a form of inspiration and soft power. As of this month, it’s fair to say that era has ended.