Given recent tensions between Russia and the United States, its rather strange that the U.S. relies on Russia to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It also relies on Russian RD-180 rocket engines for the United Launch Alliance Commercial Crew program, a fact competitor SpaceX is keen to point out. SpaceX is currently the only commercial provider of made in America rocket engines.
But even stranger than the U.S. relying on Russia to access space is the fact that up to 75 percent of the electronic components for Russian satellites come from U.S. manufacturers, according to Russian space program specialist Nikolay Testoyedov.
That means that the dependency is actually the other way around.
If Moscow ever retaliates by refusing to sell RD-180 rocket motors to Washington, which Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened, Russia’s satellite program could be frozen for at least two years.
“The imported electronic components in our satellites represent 25 to 75 percent of the total in communications; in military ones, somewhat less; in commercial ones, more,” Testoyedov says. Approximately 83-87 percent of the imported components come from the United States, giving Washington leverage.
Recently the United States has indicated it will intensify sanctions against Russia because of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Testoyedov says new sanctions will likely target this precise sector because of its national security implications.
Yet Moscow will no face serious problems this year, given current supplies of the components, but in the next two years. “After 2019,” he suggests, Russian satellite producers will use new designs that don't require these “critical elements.”
Vladimir Shvaryev, the deputy head of the Moscow Center for the Analysis of the Global Arms Trade says that if the U.S. does impose sanctions in this sector, Moscow “could buy everything necessary from China.”
In a show of just how connected the global economy is, such purchases could then provoke the West into imposing limitations on the export of key technologies to China.
There are also doubts about China as a supplier, not only because Chinese production is not as good as America's in this sector but also because China is also unreliable, at least in the longer term.
“I wouldn't begin to trust China either,” Yury Karash, a member of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, said. “There is the suspicion that Beijing under favorable circumstances would not be against seizing a significant part of Russia.”
Even if it doesn’t do that anytime soon, the new Russian ‘East’ Cosmodrome is a mere 60 miles from the Russian-Chinese border, making it a tempting target.