Russia is attempting to regain its status as a global space power by launching the Luna 25 mission to the moon almost five decades since the Soviet Union launched its last mission, the Luna 24, in 1976. As Russia emerges from the long shadow of the Soviet Union’s lunar accomplishments, it finds a world that is fast embracing a multi-polar political order extending to the Moon. Russia, which once enjoyed a pole position in geopolitical bipolarity during the Cold War, intends to ensure it doesn’t fall behind in these changed times.
Leadership in the Past
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union surprised the United States (US) by launching the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik. The ensuing ‘space race’ was extended to the moon in the late 1950s, with the US establishing the Pioneer, Ranger and Surveyor programmes to compete with the Soviet Union’s Luna programme.
The Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to touch (hard landing) the lunar surface in 1959. Although the Soviet Union successfully photographed the far side of the moon for the first time using the Luna 3 in 1959, it suffered several mission failures before achieving another success in 1966. The Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to soft land on the moon and transmit pictures from the lunar surface.
These feats of ‘space firsts’ played a significant role in determining the relative technological strength of the Cold War superpowers. This competition also included crewed missions. The Soviet Union was the first to launch a human into space in 1961, and the US responded with its missions, culminating in the Apollo lunar landings.
Before it could mount a proportionate response, the Soviet Union competed with the Apollo human missions using the robotic spacecraft. The Luna 15 was launched in 1969 to retrieve lunar samples back to Earth before the Apollo 11 mission could.
However, the Luna 15 crashed on the lunar surface while the Apollo 11 astronauts were conducting the moonwalk, thus denying the Soviet Union a chance to diminish, however slightly, the significance of the first human landing on the moon. The Soviet Union finally succeeded in returning its lunar samples through the Luna 16 mission in 1970.
Despite this intense competition, however, the scientists from either side of the Iron Curtain kept their communications open. This allowed the two superpowers to mount a joint space mission in 1975 quickly, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, as a symbol of emerging détente between them.
The Luna programme continued to launch missions until the last Luna 24 project. The later missions achieved a better success rate, allowing the Soviet Union, the only country other than the US, to possess the technology and the vaunted experience in orbiting, roving and sample return from the moon.
Struggling at Present
The gradual downfall and later demise of the Soviet Union severely constrained the budget available for the prospective lunar and interplanetary missions envisioned by Russia. Still, it tried to keep these ambitions alive by launching a Mars probe, the Mars 96, in 1996. Unlike the Cold War era competitive missions, this project saw instrument contributions by the US and a few European countries. However, the spacecraft failed to achieve the desired orbit and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere soon after the launch.
Despite the setback, Russia again launched another ambitious mission to retrieve samples from the Martian moon Phobos. The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was established in 2011 along with a Chinese orbiter, the Yinghuo-1, to be inserted into a Martian orbit. This mission, too, suffered the same fate as the Mars 96.
In the post-Cold War era, Russia lacked the financial and ideological wherewithal of the Soviet Union to support a high tempo of lunar and interplanetary launches while suffering severe failures. Meanwhile, emerging Asian space powers, India and China, captured the initiative and renewed the strategic competition in outer space. Ironically, the Soviet Union was one of the largest benefactors of these countries by providing the material, technology and training necessary for building their indigenous space programmes.
China successfully kickstarted its lunar exploration programme by launching the Chang’e-1 lunar orbiter in 2007. The follow-up lander mission launched in 2013, the Chang’e-3, was the first successful landing attempt on the lunar surface since the Luna 24. China also registered its own ‘space first’ when Chang’e-4 landed on the moon’s far side.
Moreover, China is leading the development of the architecture proposed under the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and signing up international partners. Although China and Russia jointly offered the initiative, it is being promoted lately as a Chinese initiative that Russia has signed up for.
Partnership with India has foreclosed much earlier for Russia to assess in retrospect because of the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission. This failure triggered a series of delays in developing the Russian lander module intended to be a part of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission. Consequently, India developed its lander and launched the spacecraft in 2019 without Russian contribution. However, India’s lander crash-landed on the lunar surface.
India has recently launched the Chandrayaan-3 mission in its next attempt to land on the moon. The spacecraft has been inserted into a lunar orbit just as Russia is preparing to launch the Luna 25. The possibility of coordinated experiments using these two spacecraft, akin to the bi-static radar experiment between Chandrayaan-1 and the American Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), still needs to be determined. For now, a joint India-Russia lunar exploration seems distant as India signed the US-led Artemis Accords (AA) and is exploring a partnership with Japan for the next lunar mission.
Space Agencies Divided Again
Both the Artemis and the ILRS programmes aim to establish the necessary infrastructure to enable the long-term stay of astronauts on the moon. Like the original space race, these two programmes are not collaborative but competing, despite possessing similar intentions. The only difference being the Soviet Union was replaced by China in the emerging strategic competition.
This factor underpins the emerging space camps with the US signing its traditional economic and security partners like Japan and the United Kingdom onto the AA. In contrast, China partners with Russia and Venezuela on the ILRS. The AA also successfully attracted the regional space powers India and Israel and the Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, seeking to diversify their economic base.
Partnering with both camps may be challenging for these international partners, as exemplified by the difficulty faced by the UAE. Even as it signed on the AA, the UAE is also designing the Rashid 2 rover intended to be launched on China’s Chang’e-7 mission scheduled for 2026.
According to media reports, this collaboration has fallen foul of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions that prevent sensitive American technology and components from being transferred to the entities in control list countries such as Russia and China.
Technology restrictions and sanctions are a familiar approach of the US seeking to limit the development of military and dual-use platforms by adversarial countries. China and India were sanctioned in the 1990s by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as they tried importing and developing space technologies. These could enhance the strategic potential and the competitive edge in the international satellite and launch vehicle markets.
Considering Russia’s vast technology and industrial base, the Luna 25 would not have suffered such restrictions. Instead, Luna 25 is venturing towards the moon when its resources are being contested, particularly the permanently shadowed craters assessed to contain reasonable water reserves (water-ice). Moreover, the states tend to assert/restrict access rights to a local landing or exploration zone to protect heritage or avoid it.
The Moon Treaty contains provisions to avoid these potential problems, including calling for establishing an international regime to govern the extraction and exploitation of lunar resources. Despite the Soviet Union championing this treaty, neither it nor other space powers have become state parties. India and France have only signed but have yet to ratify it.
Consequently, the potential for conflict between the states has been rising as the two camps, divided by the strategic rationale, compete to mould the political future of the moon and lunar exploration and settlement.
In an ideal world, Russia’s attempt to retain its lunar exploration initiative through the Luna 25 is welcoming. However, the re-emergence of the political barriers is curtailing sharing of technical information and scientific understanding of the Earth’s only natural satellite. Even if Russia were to be successful, it is doubtful it possesses the requisite political clout to lead future lunar exploration for the world.
Vidya Sagar Reddy holds a Master’s degree in Geopolitical and International Relations from the Manipal University. Previously, he was an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.