Russian Space Facilities Director Fired in Continued Shakeup Related to Vostochny

Ruslan Mukhamedzhanov (Credit: Roscomsos)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The previously reprimanded head of the Russian company that oversees Russia’s ground-based space infrastructure has been fired in a continuing shakeup related to schedule delays and alleged corruption at the Vostochny Cosmodrome.

The Board of Directors of the Center for Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure Facilities (TsENKI) voted to relieve General Director Andrei Okhlopkov from his post beginning on Nov. 27. A month earlier, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin had reprimanded him during a visit to Vostochmy.

Okhlopkov had been the head of TsENKI since June 2018. The board replaced him with Ruslan Mukhamedzhanov, a 20-year TsENKI employee who most recently headed up the company’s Barmin Research Institute of Launch Complexes.

TsENKI is responsible for the creation of ground space infrastructure and manages Russian cosmodromes. The company, which is part of Roscosmos, employs more than 12,000 people.

A Roscosmos press release announcing the change did not say why Okhlopkov was fired. However, the decision appears to be related ongoing schedule delays and alleged corruption at Vostochny.

During a visit to Vostochny last month, Rogozin had reprimanded Okhlopkov and TsENKI Chief Engineer Vladimir Zhuk. During the same visit, the Roscosmos head also fired Evgeny Rogoza, general director of the Vostochny Cosmodrome Directorate.

Two government officials were susbsequently arrested for their alleged involvement in an embezzlement and bribery scheme at the spaceport. Russia Today reports:

Roman Bobkov, the head of the state entity operating the cosmodrome, has been placed in pre-trial detention for two months by a local court, on Saturday, and faces several charges, including fraud, abuse of office, and incitement to abuse of office and forgery. He assumed the role of director at Vostochny in March 2019.

Bobkov is accused of using bribery to entice a senior Defense Ministry inspector, Dmitry Fomintsev, to file fake reports on the commissioning of several of the spaceport’s major water-supply facilities. The fraudulent documents were allegedly drawn up to conceal Bobkov’s own misconduct during their construction, which had left them unfinished.

The official’s machinations have cost the Russian authorities some 500 million rubles ($6.56 million), Moscow daily Kommersant reported. They also posed a potential safety hazard, as the water-supply facilities in question were meant to provide water for both the rocket-fuel production facility, and fuel storage and fire protection systems in the neighboring town of Tsiolkovsky, in the Amur Region, a remote Far Eastern territory, bordering China. 

Fomintsev was arrested earlier this week. According to Russian media, he had agreed to forge the reports in exchange for a lucrative job offer that had been extended by Bobkov. The director offered both the inspector and his wife positions within his domain, with a salary of 500,000 rubles ($6,560) a month each.

Vostochny has been plagued for years by corruption, schedule delays and periodic problems paying workers. In 2015, a man whose company was doing construction at the spaceport was arrested on charges of embezzlement while driving a Mercedes encrusted with $300,000 worth of Swarovski diamonds in the Belarus capital of Minsk.

Russia Today reported last year that President Vladimir Putin was furious over the dozens of people involved in the spaceport’s development who have been jailed on corruption charges

The Russian president grilled the government for allowing misappropriation of state funds at the Vostochny Cosmodrome and other large-scale state construction projects on Monday. He reminded the ministers that it wasn’t the first time he has addressed the problem.

“We’ve said it a hundred times – work transparently as big money is being allocated; it’s practically a national project. But no, they keep stealing in hundreds of millions![Putin said.]

[….]

But the Vostochny project was marred by corruption scandals, lengthy delays and protests by workers over unpaid salaries. A total of 11 billion rubles (around $172 million) have been embezzled during the construction, the Kremlin press-secretary Dmitry Peskov said on Monday. Of this, 3.5 billion rubles (around $55 million) were later returned to the state budget, he added. 

The General Prosecutor’s office found 17,000 violations on site between 2014 and 2018, initiating some 140 criminal cases. More than 30 people were handed prison sentences since then, including the head of the Vostochny Cosmodrome’s primary contractor.

Located in the Russian Far East, Vostochny is designed to reduce the nation’s dependence on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Russia launches satellites from Baikonur under a long-term lease. The country also launched spacecraft into polar orbit from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.

The slow pace of development at Vostochny has left Russia still largely dependent upon Baikonur. Only five Soyuz-2 launches have been conducted from Vostochny since the first one on April 28, 2016.

Vostochny is being expanded with a launch complex designed for the Angara family of boosters. Russia will be able to retire its aging Proton booster Vostochny’s Angara launch complex becomes operational. Unlike Angara, Proton uses toxic fuels that can pollute the ground.