On March 9, Russia and China signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the construction of an international lunar research station (ILRS) (Roscosmos.ru, March 9). Though there is no road map toward realizing the ILRS, the Russo-Chinese memorandum raises at least two main questions. First, what is the real prospect for such bilateral space cooperation? And second, does this memorandum mean that Russia has decided to go to the Moon with China and give up on the West’s Artemis program (and in particular, the Gateway lunar orbital station), led by the United States and with the participation of Europe, Japan and Canada?
The March 2021 memorandum is not the first tangible step in Russian-Chinese Moon diplomacy. Previously, in 2019, the two sides signed bilateral agreements on establishing a common data center for lunar and deep-space exploration as well as coordinating between Russia’s Luna-26 (Luna-Resurs-1 OA) and China’s Chang’e 7 missions to lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface, respectively. Both of these missions are currently planned for 2024 (Roscosmos.ru, September 17, 2019). Nevertheless, the above-cited agreements have been more symbolic than practical because of their inherent political and technological challenges.
In contrast with the United States, China’s approach to international space cooperation does not presume any type of long-term interdependence. Its partners should be either suppliers of components and technologies to the Chinese space programs until China can produce them itself, or dependent actors that give political loyalty and economic preferences to Beijing in exchange for participation in Chinese activities beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. In short, China does not create coalitions; rather, it searches for short- and medium-term technology donors and for long-term clients.
However, Russia cannot be a significant donor to the Chinese space program. China has already adopted most Soviet/Russian technologies for manned spaceflight in low-Earth orbit. And beyond low-Earth orbit, Russia can provide almost nothing. For instance, Russia’s lunar program for the current decade consists of four missions: Luna-25 (former Luna-Glob) as a technology test platform for fall 2024, Luna-26 (Luna-Resurs-1 OA) as a lunar orbital probe in 2024, Luna-27 (Luna-Resurs-1 PA) as a lunar landing probe in 2025, and Luna-Grunt as a lunar sample-return probe after 2025 (Laspace.ru, accessed March 30, 2021). The problem for Moscow is that China has already completed all these steps unilaterally during its Chang’e 1–5 missions, in 2007–2020.
Furthermore, the Russian project to develop a super-heavy launch vehicle capable of deep-space exploration is temporarily frozen as of March 2021 and will not be realized before the 2030s (Interfax, February 10), because of a lack of technologies, human capital, industrial capacity and financial sources. Nonetheless, Russia continues work on its new manned spacecraft, Orel, which is designed for both low-Earth-orbit and deep-space missions. It is scheduled to undertake its first circumlunar manned mission by the end of the 2020s (TASS, March 11). The absence of a super-heavy launch vehicle means the circumlunar mission will require two launches of the Angara-A5 heavy rocket, which is to become operational in the coming years, after more than a quarter century of development. In this way, Russia has studied some aspects of the two-launch circuit since 2018 (RIA Novosti, July 10, 2018). However, there remains some uncertainty because Roscosmos first wants to secure one more rocket for the Orel spacecraft—the medium-class Soyuz-5 launch vehicle, which is also still under development (RIA Novosti, March 3, 2020). Taken together, it is rather optimistic to think that the spacecraft will become operational in time.
Unlike Russia, China conducted two test flights of its next-generation manned spacecraft, in 2016 and 2020. The spacecraft’s launcher, the Long March 5 heavy rocket, is operational, and the super-heavy Long March 9 rocket, for manned lunar missions, is under development. Consequently, it is doubtful that, in the current circumstances, Russia’s and China’s respective Moon programs can be synchronized. Moreover, even if long-term bilateral cooperation in lunar exploration is possible, the lack of technological advantages on the Russian side means Moscow can expect little from such a partnership other than increasing political and economic dependence on Beijing—which is presumably as unacceptable for the Kremlin as it is for Russian society.
The real logic of the Russian-Chinese ILRS memorandum may be found in the small but key textual difference between Russia’s and China’s versions of the March 9 document. The Russian version notes the prospect of a human presence on the Moon as part of the exploitation of the ILRS (Roscosmos.ru, March 9), but the Chinese one does not mention a common lunar manned mission at all (Cnsa.gov.cn, March 9). So even assuming Russia and China can successfully act on the memorandum, the resulting ILRS mission would (based on the lower ambitions outlined in the Chinese version) likely be limited to a fully automated scientific station on the Moon’s surface or in lunar orbit.
Still, it was politically important for Moscow to publicly emphasize the prospect of Russian-Chinese manned flights to the Moon even in the face of the utter absence of such pledges by Beijing. The most probable purpose of such a bluff is to “scare” the United States into preserving the US-Russian (and more broadly Western-Russian) space partnership beyond the International Space Station’s (ISS) lifetime (see EDM, June 22, 2020). This fits in with the comparably combative negotiations approach exemplified by the public statements of Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, who last year claimed that Russia is not interested in Gateway, the US’s planned lunar orbital manned station, because it “looks more like NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] than the ISS” (Roscosmos.ru, July 13, 2020). The telling detail is that the Russian space industry still seeks to contribute to the Artemis program, despite Russia’s serious technological gaps (Energia.ru, March 2, 2020).
Since 1992, the partnership with the West has provided Moscow with relatively high international status, diplomatic tools, technologies and economic sources regardless of who was in the Kremlin. Therefore, Russia ideally first wants to dangle the “Chinese space threat” to intimidate the US into maintaining its cooperation, but then to collaborate with China anyway to diversify Russia’s space activities as well as room for maneuver in the international arena.