The US-Russia ISS Partnership

a policy response to the war in the Ukraine

by Marissa Herron

Credits: NASA

Define the policy issue

The recent developments in Ukraine have caused many to question whether Russia will continue to support the International Space Station (ISS). Additionally, many are questioning whether the U.S. should immediately withdraw Russia from the ISS. These events present the following policy issues for consideration: Should the U.S. continue to support the ISS partnership with Russia given the war in Ukraine? Consideration of this policy approach includes an evaluation of the near term and long term impacts, as well as the technical capabilities and the international relations.

Who is involved?

The International Space Station is a partnership led primarily by the U.S. and Russia with contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA), Canada, and Japan. The multilateral agreement, also referred to as the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), was signed in 1998[1] and has since expanded to include additional member and cooperating states of ESA. In total, the ESA participating countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Luxembourg, Slovenia[2].

NASA has four bilateral memoranda of understandings with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), ESA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA). These bilateral agreements supersede previous space station agreements[3]. Withdrawal from the partnership is described in Article 28 of the IGA and specifies written notice to occur one year in advance of withdrawal.

If Russia withdraws from the ISS partnership or the U.S. excludes Russia from the partnership, then many actors will be impacted. In the context of the present policy question, Russia and the U.S. are the dominant actors of interest, with Congress and NASA representing U.S. interests and capabilities. Other U.S. entities impacted include the commercial space industry that provides crew and cargo services to and from the ISS, the commercial and science payload users on the ISS, and the public. Note that the public extends beyond the U.S. public and to the international areas impacted by an ISS debris footprint.

What is the purpose of the ISS?

In 1984, President Reagan tasked NASA with building a manned space station. The project was intended as a symbol of U.S. prestige and international cooperation. An Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed in 1988 between the U.S, Japan, Canada, and ESA. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Clinton, in 1993, invited Russia to join the ISS partnership[4]. Inviting Russia served as an incentive towards ending the Cold War, a means of employing Russian engineers (to disincentivize them from working on projects against U.S. interests), and to create a cancellation-proof international project[5].

The first module of the ISS was launched in 1998[6] and began manned operations in 2000[7]. Assembly complete was officially achieved in 2010[8] and represented a shift in focus from building the space station to utilization of the ISS. The ISS is now recognized as a national lab with utilization facilitated through the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS)[9] and NASA. Crew and cargo continue to travel to and from the ISS using Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles, and U.S. commercial crew and cargo services[10]

The original purpose of the ISS has clearly been achieved. In the present, the ISS serves as a symbol of international prestige, especially for the U.S. and Russia. Support for the ISS partnership has naturally diminished with international partners seeking new opportunities and uncertain of the life left in the space station’s aging systems. Prior to the situation in Ukraine, Russia already communicated interest in concluding the ISS partnership[11]. NASA recently unveiled a transition plan to a new space station architecture[12]. However, the continued presence of ISS, primarily justified by Congressional support to maintain the U.S.-Russia partnership[13], disincentivizes the move to a new architecture. Thus, the ISS remains as both a symbol of prestige and a means of achieving international relations.

How are the two nations entangled? 

The topic of propulsion was raised in a recent social media post by Dmitrii Rogozin[14]. Russia provides the reboost capability for the ISS[15]. The space station resides in low earth orbit at approximately 400 km. Atmospheric effects lead to orbital decay and necessitate periodic reboosts to raise the space station back up to 400 km. If the space station’s orbit is not raised then the ISS will enter Earth’s atmosphere, portions of the ISS will burn up in the atmosphere, and other pieces will survive re-entry[16].

Simply put, Russia provides the propulsion capability, and the U.S. provides the power capability[17]. The space station is not designed to be split between the Russian and U.S. segments[18]. Despite the many contributions to the ISS by both nations, both Russia and the U.S. are dependent upon one another for the continued operation of the ISS. If a situation occurs in which the U.S. desires to continue ISS operations without the Russian partnership, then the U.S. will need to overcome the propulsion constraint.

What’s a stake?

At present, the U.S. has more at stake than Russia. Below are four issues to consider before dissolving the U.S. – Russia ISS partnership.

  1. Potentially increased risk to public safety for a contingency disposal of the ISS.
  2. A shift in the balance of dominant space powers that is not favorable to the U.S.
  3. The loss of many years of trust and comradery built through cooperation 
  4. Loss of opportunity for the U.S. commercial space sector and the scientific utilization of the ISS

The first issue recognizes the technical limitations of current space capabilities. NASA recently published an end of life plan that indicated dependency on Russia’s Progress vehicle for a controlled disposal of the space station. This plan stated ongoing consideration for potential contributions of other visiting vehicles to the space station[19], but did not state that such a capability presently exists[20]. An immediate dissolution of the ISS partnership may not include the support of the Russia propulsion capabilities and instead necessitate an uncontrolled disposal of the ISS with an increased public risk. An uncontrolled disposal may do more harm to the public[21] (domestic and international) and make future space station efforts difficult to initiate. NASA has already communicated that an uncontrolled disposal of the ISS is not acceptable[22].

Ideally, a coordinated and cooperative end to the partnership will occur with the safest disposal option utilized. A full comprehension of this risk is dependent upon technical capability limitations. NASA needs to communicate the extent to which dependencies exist on Russia for the safe disposal of the ISS. Negotiations for a controlled disposal should be attempted in the interest of public safety. NASA should also communicate the availability, cost, and timeframe for which alternative capabilities to a safe disposal might exist in the event that Russia does not support a coordinated withdrawal.

The second issue recognizes the loss of a symbol of prestige (for both countries). An immediate dissolution of the U.S. – Russia ISS partnership will result in the ISS being deorbited. As a result, China will become the sole power with a space station and take the lead in developing international partnerships. In this regard, the U.S. has more at stake than Russia. This particular risk is a shifting of the balance of powers. Along with the U.S., Russia and China are well recognized as dominant, human spaceflight nations[23]. Russia is already partnering with China in space[24]. The resources that are currently committed to the ISS will be freed to support additional China – Russia space partnerships[25]. China is openly seeking partnerships with other nations. The Europeans are already partnering with China in space and India has also expressed interest[26]. There exists increasing recognition for the U.S. to move beyond its past exclusion of China[27] and to begin considering limited space partnerships with China. Given China’s growing space capabilities and partnerships, an immediate dissolution of the U.S. – Russia partnership and demise of the ISS will risk the isolation of the U.S. 

The third issue acknowledges that the U.S. – Russia partnership is a recognized success and has long served as a bridge between two world powers. Building the ISS was a challenge for Russia to provide adequate resources towards their contribution. However, Russia made up for these past issues when providing the U.S. with their only method of crew and cargo transportation post Shuttle retirement[28]. Furthermore, the Soyuz vehicle has, for decades, demonstrated its reliability and served as an emergency crew return vehicle in place of NASA’s past attempts to develop a Crew Return Vehicle[29]. This partnership is not simply about the physical components contributed to the space station, but instead is about the demonstrated trust and comradery amongst two nations that do not always agree on the same principles and values.

The ISS partnership was designed with the Russians in mind. If the U.S. preemptively removes Russia from the partnership, then a message of distrust for future partnerships is also sent. A new U.S. – Russia space cooperation partnership has yet to be solidified. If the U.S. dissolves the current partnership in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, then the U.S. sends the message that no other cooperative options remain between the two nations. This message risks the loss of future partnerships with Russia for many years to come.

The fourth issue recognizes the negative impact to the commercial space industry and the scientific payloads on the ISS. This issue, while important, is a lower priority concern and represents a resilient community that can be accommodated with a new space station. However, the funding to develop a new space station is harder to obtain than the funding to continue operations. This is a contributing reason to the use of international partnerships to initially build a “cancellation-proof” ISS. A new space station will require contributions from international partnerships and/or a strong commercial space industry that sees adequate business opportunity to overcome the cost of access to space. Thus, an immediate replacement should not be presumed. 

Desired End State/Outcome

The ideal end state is for both nations to continue supporting the ISS partnership despite the ongoing war in Ukraine. If a dissolution of the partnership is necessitated, then the secondary end state includes a coordinated disposal of the ISS with Russian cooperation. This outcome includes the minimization of the public risk due to disposal. 

Policy Options

The following options exist:

  1. Continue the partnership and make no changes
  2. Continue the partnership, but plan for their potential withdrawal and clarify what technical capabilities and constraints exist. 
  3. The U.S. preemptively dissolves the partnership in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pursues a disposal of the ISS.
  4. Remove all personnel from the ISS and the ground support in both Russia and the U.S. Negotiate with the Russians to retain the option to perform a controlled deorbit using their propulsion capability.

Option 1 involves maintaining the status quo and taking no action. This option is ill advised because the potential impacts to public safety are not addressed. Beyond Rogozin’s social media posts, there are no other indications that Russia will withdraw from the ISS partnership. However, the U.S. would be negligent to not consider the potential public safety impacts should such threats be realized.

Option 2 also involves maintaining the partnership but includes planning efforts for worst case scenarios. In particular, this option allows Russia to dictate whether or not to continue the partnership and places them in the position to end their greatest achievement in space and symbol of prestige. The U.S. instead focuses on the technical feasibility of maintaining the ISS without Russian support, with immediate focus on identifying safe disposal options that minimize public safety impacts (both with and without Russian propulsion support). This option can include an accelerated effort to develop a reboost capability. The U.S. does not respond to Russia’s war on Ukraine with a rushed decision to cancel the ISS partnership and an unnecessary increase in risk to public safety. Instead, the U.S. retains the option to use the ISS partnership as a means of last resort, once technical capabilities are better informed.

Option 3 involves the U.S. reacting to Russia’s war on Ukraine by immediately dissolving the ISS partnership. This will result in an uncontrolled, non-cooperative descent of the ISS and an increased risk to public safety (with international implications) from the survivability of ISS pieces.

Option 4 addresses any concerns that may exist with Americans in Russia and Russians in America in support of continued manned ISS operations. Crew launch and return[30], crew training, and crew operations support involve the exchange of personnel across borders. If tensions between Russia and the U.S. escalate such that concerns for the safety of personnel exist, then demanning the ISS is a viable option[31]. If this option is exercised, negotiation for the use of Russian propulsion capabilities to pursue a controlled deorbit in the interest of public safety should be pursued. 

Policy Recommendation

The recommended policy approach is to begin with Option 2 and then escalate to Option 4 if tensions warrant. Specifically, the following steps should occur:

  1. Continue the partnership for the foreseeable future while preparing for the potential withdrawal of Russian support.
    1. NASA should immediately provide an update on the latest ISS contingency disposal plan and estimated public safety impacts. This plan should reflect a range of scenario’s beginning with NASA’s response to a scenario of limited time to prepare for disposal and extending to a cooperative, controlled reentry with minimized impacts. Analyses and impacts for both controlled and uncontrolled descents should be included. The relevant technical parameters to support a negotiation with Russia towards a controlled disposal should be identified.
    1. NASA should provide information on alternative reboost capabilities (to include cost and schedule needs for accelerated efforts). 
    1. NASA should communicate any other (near term and long term) technical constraints and impacts to continued ISS operations if the Russian partnership dissolves. 
    1. Confirm with NASA the feasibility to perform a controlled descent of the ISS during unmanned operations and ensure such details are accounted for prior to demanning the space station.
  2. Escalation Point 1: If U.S. – Russia tensions escalate then pursue unmanned ISS operations and send all crew and supporting personnel home. Use the information provided by NASA to negotiate for the use of Progress to complete a controlled ISS deorbit, should such an event be decided upon.
  3. Escalation Point 2: If the situation further escalates, then consider the use of the ISS partnership as a means of last resort. The use of this option should NOT be exercised at the risk to public safety.


In the present context, a dissolution of the U.S. – Russia ISS partnership will result in greater loss to the U.S. The technical constraints and resultant public safety risks place the U.S. in a tenuous position. The greatest risk right now is an unnecessary escalation that only serves Russia and hurts the U.S. The U.S. needs to carefully consider these limitations when deciding how the ISS partnership is leveraged in response to the war on Ukraine. In the near term, Rogozin’s threats serve as justification to raise the priority on mitigating technical dependencies on Russian capabilities. In the long term, the U.S. should continue to pursue the use of space cooperation for international relationships and consider the viability of limited cooperation with China.


The original signing included the following ESA participating countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom

In 1993, the U.S., Japan, Europe, and Canada invite Russia to join the space station partnership as part of “the theme of cooperation following the end of the cold war.”
Ownership and responsibility of the ISS is defined by Article 5 of the IGA which states “Pursuant to Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty and Article II of the Registration Convention, each Partner shall retain jurisdiction and control over the elements it registers… and over personnel in or on the Space Station…”  However, this language refers primarily to the activities within the respective modules and not a separation of the modules.


[5] Retired NASA Historian/Bill Barry, NASA Historian/Steve Garber, March 2022



[8] Since Assembly Complete, ongoing updates to the ISS have continued:,


The European Automated Transfer Vehicle previously served as cargo transport and reboost capabilities but has since been retired.
The Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle also serve as a cargo resupply vehicle.







[17] The agreement between the U.S. and Russian Space Agency specifies the use of Progress for reboost capabilities.


“The ISS will accomplish the de-orbit maneuvers by using the propulsion capabilities of the ISS and its visiting vehicles. The overall de-orbit would require extra visiting vehicles beyond the regular cadence of traffic to the ISS. Not all visiting vehicles can be used to assist in the de-orbit. NASA and its partners have evaluated varying quantities of Russian Progress spacecraft and determined that three can accomplish the de-orbit. Additionally, Northrop Grumman has been expanding the propulsion capabilities of its Cygnus spacecraft, and NASA has been evaluating whether Cygnus could also be part of the vehicle capability needed to the de-orbit the ISS. ” Note that Cygnus currently uses the Antares launch vehicle which relies on the RD-181 Russian engine. In response to sanctions, Russia said it would no longer supply these engines. Northrup Grumman currently has supply for two more launches. Other launch vehicle options may need to be considered.

[20] “NASA is evaluating whether U.S. commercial spacecraft can be modified to provide capability to deorbit the space station.”

[21], Disposal typically occur over international waters to reduce the risk to human life and property. However, the significant mass of the ISS creates an extensive debris footprint. Debris survivability depends upon the density and heat resistance of a component. Components of the truss are expected to survive. NASA is currently targeting a controlled disposal for Point Nemo due to its remote distance from land. Also worth noting, is that uncontrolled decay is not an immediate occurrence. The ISS will not suddenly fall out of orbit. The orbital decay will occur gradually over time. The length of time depends upon solar activity which influences the amount of drag experienced and, thus, the time to decay. 

[22] “Random v Controlled Re-entry: A natural orbital decay of the space station with a completely random re-entry would not ensure that the surviving debris lands in a remote, unpopulated area. The risks to the ground population associated with an uncontrolled re-entry for space station are not acceptable for NASA without mitigation. It is for this reason that a propulsive maneuver is required to mitigate this risk and ensure a controlled, targeted re-entry into a remote uninhabited area in the ocean.”

[23] Russia typically serves a junior role with the U.S. and China in the leadership roles


[25] Although the impact of recent sanctions and China’s response remain yet to be determined.


[27] See Wolf Amendment

[28], The cost of Soyuz seats was not free and continuously increased over the years, creating more incentive to develop a domestic capability (Commercial Crew and Cargo).


[30] One American (Mark Vande Hei) is scheduled to return March 30 on the Soyuz spacecraft which lands nominally in Kazakhstan. Beyond this immediate crew dependency, the U.S. now has a domestic crew launch and return option should Russia no longer provide Soyuz support.

[31] Varied levels of manning support (i.e. the Russians remove their crew) could also be considered, but seem unlikely if the intent of Russian is to retaliate against the U.S.

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