Over the course of the last few days (it seems) I noticed some blurbs saying that the Russian space assets had been taken over by Kazakhstan, the country they're located in. None of my usual sources had anything concrete on it until today. It's a real standoff between Russia and Kazakhstan, there are real problems stemming from this and it doesn't look to blow over or otherwise go away on its own in a few days.
Let's start here because people who don't study this area (like me!) might be hazy on some of these details. Kazakhstan was part of the USSR when they (the USSR) decided to build their launch facilities, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, on the vast open plains of Kazakhstan beginning in 1955. A few years later, it became the world's first spaceport with the launches of the Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 missions.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia leased the spaceport from the government of Kazakhstan and currently has an agreement to use the facilities through the year 2050. Russia pays an annual lease fee of about $100 million. Neither country is particularly happy with the relationship; the Kazakh government feels like it is under-compensated, and the Russian government would like it to be in its own country, which is why it has moved in recent years to build a new launch site for most of its rockets in the Far East of Russia, at Vostochny.
Screen capture of a Duck Duck Go map, with the red bubble pointing out the
Baikonur Cosmodrome. Note at the far left of the screen is Ukraine and
north of that "all roads lead to Moscow."
Russia's rocket industry has fallen behind the west and desperately needs that facility to be available. They're in the early stages of developing a new launch vehicle, the Soyuz-5, a three-stage rocket powered by RD-171 engines that will burn kerosene fuel. It's a medium lift vehicle but they hope to be able to compete cost-wise with SpaceX. Their most recently publicized plans say they intend to launch the Soyuz-5 from the "Baiterek" launch pad at Baikonur and intended to start preliminary construction on that launch pad last year. It doesn't appear that they've started.
Earlier this month, a Kazakh news site, KZ24, reported that the Republic of Kazakhstan had seized the property of TsENKI, the Center for Utilization of Ground-based Space Infrastructure, in Kazakhstan. This firm, which is a subsidiary of Roscosmos, is responsible for launch pads and ground support equipment for the Russian space corporation. According to the report, [be aware - in the Kazakh language (?)] which was translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell, TsENKI is barred from removing any assets or materials from Kazakhstan.
"A ban on utilizing resources and conducting financial operations, as well as instability in negotiating positions as a whole are slowing down the priority direction of work at Baikonur, namely the construction of a new launch pad for the Soyuz-5 Booster," the report states.
Look at that map again. Note the size of Kazakhstan compared to Ukraine, Georgia, and "the 'stans" (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and so on). With the exception of Russia itself, Kazakhstan is the biggest country you can see on that map. Perhaps that's why there's a lot of politics at play here. Kazakhstan has nominally been a sovereign nation since 1991, but in the last three decades, it has maintained close ties to Russia and lies well within the Russo-political sphere.
...Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to have changed the calculus of this relationship. Namely, Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, apparently sees Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine as a window of opportunity to assert greater autonomy for Kazakhstan.
Russia, for its part, has pushed back on further autonomy for Kazakhstan. Weakening ties with the large country to its south could lead to a further crumbling of the Russian Federation. At times, the rhetoric has grown heated. For example, former Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev has called Kazakhstan an "artificial state" and, on the Russian social media site VKontakte, accused the neighboring country of planning genocide against ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan.
It wouldn't be a story involving Russia without that sort of blustery rhetoric. The former head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Grogozin, was pretty well-known for that. The current head, Yuri Borisov, is quite a bit more restrained.
Borisov, who prefers to keep a low profile, and at least in his public dealings with NASA has struck an apolitical posture, has so far not commented on the dispute. Nor has Roscosmos said anything on its Telegram channel [apparently in Russian], which now effectively acts as its primary public outreach tool.
It strikes me that this is some sort of political standoff, and until it's resolved the development of the Soyuz-5 is on hold. An interesting side note is that Russia has been working toward moving their launches into their own country, which is why it has moved in recent years to build that new launch site at Vostochny in the Far East of Russia. A quick search for that name doesn't show me anything that I can pin down to a location. There is a mountain (or mountain range) by that name on the Kamchatka peninsula which is pretty much on the Pacific, but I don't know if that's what they're referring to.
"May you live in interesting times," right?