Putin Eyes Ukraine’s Space and Defense Industries

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks over plans for Vostochny. (Credit: Roscosmos)
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks over plans for Vostochny. (Credit: Roscosmos)

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russian Federation was left with some key installations and capabilities in newly-independent nations. Kazakhstan had authority over the main launch facility at Baikonur, while Ukraine found itself in control of ballistic missile producer Yuzhmash, the Yuzhnoye bureau that designs Yuzhmash’s rockets, and a host of other defense companies.

Today, more than 50 Ukrainian arms factories turn out technologies that are vital for the nation’s tottering economy and the Russian military that now threatens to invade it. The factories are located in the southern and eastern portions of Ukraine, where Moscow-based separatists have wrestled control away from local authorities.

With the fate of these regions and companies still very much up for grabs, the outcome is of concern far beyond eastern Ukraine. Launch providers in the United States, Europe and Brazil are looking on with great concern and trepidation.

Kateryna Choursina and James M. Gomez of Bloomberg News report that Ukraine’s arms industry is both a prize and and problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin:

“Taking Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions would be hugely beneficial for Russia from a military and economic point of view,” said Mikhail Barabanov, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief magazine. “Russia will have control of the very important and valuable defense companies and plants.”

The Russian government’s $15 billion agreement with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in December included a trade pact that set out to further intertwine the two countries’ defense industries. Putin has since warned that disruption to supplies would harm his military’s capability. Last week he said it would also be catastrophic for the Ukrainian arms industry.

More than half of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was built in Ukraine or is equipped with a Ukraine-made navigation system, according to analysts including Serhiy Zgurets, the chief editor of Defense Express, a Ukrainian military consultancy.

The factories in the eight regions of Ukraine form the strategic backbone of an industry with $1.3 billion in annual exports. As well as Antonov air cargo transporters, Mi-8/17 and Mi-26 attack helicopter engines, they produce equipment for Albatros submarine chasers and service ballistic missiles….

Although Putin could scoop up an enormous amount of arms production capabilities, the cost could be prohibitive:

Russia won’t seek to annex the region because of the risks of getting bogged down in a civil war, capital flight from Moscow and having to rescue the local economy, according to Barbara von Ow-Freytag, who advised the German government from 2008 to 2013 on Russian issues.

“Putin’s main goal right now isn’t an invasion of eastern Ukraine,” she said in a May 4 interview. “He’d do it if he could pull it off, but it would be far too expensive.”

It’s an interesting observation on the potential limitations on Putin’s regime. Despite being flush with oil and gas revenues, Russia might not be economically strong enough to seize what it wants in Ukraine. Meanwhile, economic sanctions and capital flight are driving Russia into a recession.

Launch providers abroad are watching anxiously as the fighting continues in Ukraine. Yuzhmash is responsible for producing the following launch systems, four of which are operational:

  • Zenit — used by Sea Launch and Land Launch for communications satellites
  • Dnepr — Joint Ukrainian-Russian program that uses converted Soviet-era ballistic missile to launch satellites
  • Antares — first stage structure and tanks for Orbital Sciences’s launch vehicle
  • Vega — fourth stage for Europe’s small satellite launch vehicle
  • Cyclone-4 — Joint Ukrainian-Brazilian commercial satellite launcher with inaugural flight planned from Brazil in 2015.

Yuzhmash has issued a statement saying operations have not been disrupted by the fighting. Whether that will continue remains to be seen.

The Dnepr and Zenit launchers illustrate how deeply intertwined the Russian and Ukrainian space sectors remain more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Dnepr program converts old Soviet ballistic missiles into satellite launchers. The joint Ukrainian-Russian program only recently restarted operations after the two nations worked out a deal to restructure how costs were shared for the conversions.

Zenit is produced in Ukraine with a lot of parts imported from Russia.The main buyer of Zenits is Sea Launch, which is majority owned by a subsidiary of the Russian defense giant Energia. A separate multi-national company, Land Launch, also operates Zenits from Baikonur in neighboring Kazakhstan.

The Zenit booster also forms the basis for the first stage of Orbital Sciences’ new Antares rocket. The structure, tanks and plumbing are similar. Antares uses Russian engines left over from the Soviet Union’s manned lunar program for its first stage. However, there are only a limited supply of these engines.

Orbital recently said that it was weighing proposals from two Russian and one American engine suppliers to replace the Antares first-stage engine. The conflict in Ukraine and the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations might tend to dissuade Orbital from relying on a foreign engine supplier.

Potentially more relevant, however, is the planned merger of Orbital with solid-rocket motor producer ATK. Since the announcement, speculation has focused on ATK supplying a solid-fuel stage to replace the liquid one now used on Antares. It might be similar to the stage ATK developed for NASA’s Ares I rocket and its own Liberty launch vehicle.

In the short term, Orbital has enough Russian rocket engines to send Cygnus freighters to the International Space Station under a contract with NASA. However, if deliveries of the first stage are interrupted, it would not be able to fulfill its full commitment.

European Space Agency (ESA) officials say they have seen no signs of disruption in the delivery of the RD-869 fourth stage engines for the Vega rocket. Just the same, ESA has a contingency plan to develop a replacement stage in case the supply from Ukraine dries up. The German space agency is interested in working with it Italian counterpart, which led the development of the Vega.