Putin Celebrates Gagarin Flight Anniversary, Vows Russia will Remain a Leader in Space Amid Sanctions

Vladimir Putin receives a briefing from Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Credit: Office of the Russian President)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Tuesday, Russia celebrated the 61st anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, with a presidential visit to a scandal-plagued spaceport, a pledge to stay the course in the face of international sanctions over the Ukraine invasion, and an initiative to fly a citizen of one of the nation’s closest allies into space.

“Everything that we’ve seen during our visit to Vostochny, all successes in space exploration achieved in recent years prove that our country retains its leadership in space industry, is one of the leaders in this area,” President Vladimir Putin said during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

The construction of the Vostochny spaceport is running years behind schedule and has been plagued by waste, fraud and abuse. The manager of one contractor who was accused of embezzling money was arrested driving a diamond encrusted Mercedes.

Russia has been struggling to keep pace with the United States and China in space. In recent years, Russia has fallen to third in the number of orbital launches conducted annually.

TASS reports that Putin made remarks during a joint press conference with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The Russian leader has tasked the state-run Roscosmos corporation that controls the nation’s space program to arrange a spaceflight for a Belarussian citizen.

Wikipedia lists three cosmonauts — Pyotr Klimuk, Vladimir Kovalyonok and Oleg Novitski — who were born in Belarus when it was a republic of the Soviet Union. Klimuk was the first Belorussian in space when he launched aboard Soyuz 13 in December 1973. Kovalyonok, whose nationality is listed as Belorussian, retired in 1984 after three spaceflights. Novitski, who is listed as Russian, is an active cosmonaut who has spent more than 531 days in space.

TASS reported that Roscosmos and Belarus also plan to pursue several other space initiatives.

Speaking about the Earth’s remote sensing, Putin said that Russia had commenced a large-scale project for producing and launching special satellites “and for this purpose, Russia has integrated its scientific and industrial potential with leading Belarusian enterprises that have been renowned since the Soviet period for their competences in the manufacture of hi-tech equipment, complex optoelectronic and radio-technical systems.”

“Another important and landmark area of our interaction will be the joint creation of infrastructure that will guarantee the Union State an independent access to outer space. Workers and specialists of Belarusian companies and enterprises will shortly get an opportunity to participate in developing the town of Tsiolkovsky and the Vostochny spaceport,” Putin elaborated.

Putin vowed Russia would continue to carry out a vigorous space program despite Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine that have limited imports of key technologies. He said Roscosmos would pursue new spacecraft as well as nuclear propulsion.

Putin also pledged to restore a lunar exploration program that has been on hold since the Soviet Union launched the Luna 24 sample return mission in August 1976. The president received assurances from Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin that the Luna 25 lunar lander would be ready for launch by the third quarter of this year, TASS reports.

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced earlier today that it was ending cooperation with Roscosmos on the Luna-25, Luna-26 and Luna-27 missions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The space agency said it was busy securing rides on U.S. and Japanese spacecraft for some of the contributions intended for the Russian lunar missions.

Putin also pledged to better publicize Russian achievements in space.

“This is a very important issue. [Writer] Daniil Granin once told me that the government should pay more attention to this – to science in general and to high-tech industries such as space, too,” Putin noted. “We will create films, we will work on relevant literature – as practical tasks. We’ll popularize all this in schools,” he explained.

According to President Putin, Russia’s achievements in space are something we can and should be proud of, and “something that attracts talented young people to the industry.” “Of course, this is one of the most important fields,” he maintained.