Could Russia split up the ISS? How Putin could pull out of international SPACE law

Space is a 'contested environment' says Daniel Ceperley

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The space station was launched into the Earth’s orbit nearly a quarter of a century ago from Kazakhstan via a platform leased to Russia. Following components joined it from other platforms on the site and within the US, ultimately making the complete station a joint endeavour between two nations that, until a few years prior, had been locked in the Cold War. Now that Putin is threatening to cut ties with the US entirely, he has thrown into question whether or not it would help American officials keep the station operational.

Could Russia split up the ISS?

The complete ISS has two constituent parts, one operated by the US named the United States Orbital Segment (USOS) and another under Russian command known as the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS).

Russia has complete control of its segment, while the US shares operations with other nations such as the UK.

The Russian side is vital for keeping the station functional, according to David Kuan-Wei Chen, executive director and lecturer at McGill University’s Centre for Research in Air and Space Law.

He told that the Russian segment exists to provide “propulsion and altitude control” for the station.

These mechanisms, known as “station keeping”, keep it locked in orbit.

Without them and Russian cooperation, Mr Chen warned that the ISS “may drift and be pulled down to Earth by gravity”.

Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin has warned the sanctions have impeded his country’s operational abilities, which could spell doom for its section.

Mr Chen explained that everyone cooperating on the station operates under legal agreements.

Specifically, they must comply with ISS Intergovernmental Agreement (ISS IGA) parameters.

If Russian officials wanted to, they could choose to exit the agreement and stop operating onboard.

But it would take some time for them to realise this goal.

Mr Chen said: “As with any international agreement, a country can pull out at any time.

“But the ISS clearly says that to pull out, any State needs to provide ‘at least one year’s prior written notice’ (article 28).

“So even if Russia were to withdraw now, in response to the western sanctions imposed on Russia, there is a one year period until that withdrawal takes effect.

“Until then, Russia would still have to continue with its obligations.”

Although the law prevents the country from backing out without due notice, Russia has not shown much regard for international law recently.

Given this, Mr Chen said it would cause significant blowback for a country that is already suffering financially, and it wouldn’t necessarily affect the obligations of other nations.

He said: “That would severely undermine trust in and prospects of Russian cooperation in the future.

“Technically, any country, including the UK, can withdraw (as cooperation of the UK under the ESA is not affected by Brexit), and it would not affect the rights and obligations of other existing partners to the ISS IGA.”

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