Seized property at Baikonur threatens Soyuz-5 program

by P. Katin

In early March 2023, reports began to circulate that Kazakhstan had seized the property of Roscosmos at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. This has raised questions regarding launch operations from the spaceport, including important crew and cargo logistics flights for the International Space Station (ISS).

However, it is likely that the development of the Soyuz-5 rocket, as well as liquid oxygen and nitrogen production, are larger concerns as a result of the recent legal action.

Not all of the property of Roscosmos was seized. The lawsuit was filed by Kazakhstan against TsENKI (Centre for Operation of Space Ground-based Infrastructure), an organization that manages only the ground-based infrastructure of Roscosmos. This means that satellites, rocket stages, and other pieces of equipment were not seized. They can be launched into space as scheduled, since there are no restrictions on the use of ground-based equipment, except for its export outside Kazakhstan.

The lawsuit, due to which the trial began, was filed by “Joint Kazakh-Russian Enterprise Baiterek” to the “Center for the Operation of Ground-based Space Infrastructure Facilities” (TsENKI). The amount of the claim is 13.5 billion tenge, or 2 billion rubles, or 30.3 million US dollars.

Render of the planned Soyuz-5 rocket. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The official reason for filing the claim is the non-fulfillment by the Russian side of its obligations under the contract for the construction of the Baiterek complex. According to the requirements of the Kazakh side, Russia had to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the planned Soyuz-5 rocket for this launch complex and did not. Importantly, neither TsENKI nor Roscosmos have sufficient funds to pay for the assessment. Their funding depends on the Russian government, and thus the assessment also requires permission from the Russian government.

Baiterek is a joint project of Russia and Kazakhstan to modernize Site 45, the launch complex of Zenit rockets produced by Russia and Ukraine, for the new Soyuz-5 rocket. It was assumed that this rocket could also be launched from Odyssey, the former Sea Launch platform purchased by the private Russian airline S7 that has been stored in the Far East for several years. S7 pays huge amounts of money annually to store the platform, but the rocket that Roscosmos has promised is still in the design stage.

The design of Soyuz-5 began in 2015, and at the time, was planned to begin flight tests in 2022. As of 2023, the rocket is still in the preliminary design stage, and only some construction elements, such as fuel tanks, have passed any tests. The rocket was planned to be used for international commercial launches and provide a revenue stream, but the sanctions imposed by the United States on Russia after the annexation of Crimea do not allow launching satellites containing American parts on Russian rockets. This means that Soyuz-5 no longer has commercial potential, and the market for its use is very limited.

This forced the Kazakh authorities to evaluate the expediency of further financing of the Baiterek project. In addition, it was a project signed by the former President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, prompting the former head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin to rename it “Nazarbayev’s Start.” It appears that the Kazakh side may be looking for a way to get out of the project without a quarrel with the Russian side, and they found a formal reason to slow down cooperation. The seizure of TsENKI’s property is only a consequence of deep contradictions in the Baiterek project, which is no longer beneficial to Kazakhstan.

It is noteworthy that the lawsuit was filed with the Arbitration court of the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), organized in 2015 by the Nazarbayev government and guided by English case law. The judge was Lord Faulks QC, an English citizen. It is noteworthy that the AIFC court is separate and independent from Kazakhstan’s judicial system.

It follows from the text of the court’s decision that TsENKI’s lawyers challenged the jurisdiction of the court but did not provide any evidence on the subject of the claim. The court decided to recover the required amount from the price under the contract, and to ensure this decision, the Bailiffs Service of the Republic of Kazakhstan prohibited TsENKI from removing material values and assets from the country, and its head is prohibited from leaving Kazakhstan until the end of investigative actions. Also, one of the buildings on Baiterek, which belonged to TsEKNI, was seized.

The Progress MS-22 mission lifts off from Baikonur on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket in February 2023. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The heads of TsENKI and the lawyers of Roscosmos went to Kazakhstan to settle issues with the property of the organization. Even though this seizure does not threaten Russian launches from Baikonur, it creates many other problems in the work of the cosmodrome. For example, there is an Oxygen-Nitrogen plant on Baikonur that produces high-purity liquid oxygen and nitrogen. They are needed as components of rocket propellant, and the excess is exported to Russia, where, for example, oxygen is used for medical purposes. Now, the export of the plant’s products is prohibited, according to the court decision, and this is just one example of the impact on Roscomos’ infrastructure.

Thus, the current situation does not threaten the launches of Soyuz and Progress ships on Soyuz-2 launch vehicles from the Baikonur cosmodrome to the ISS, nor the launches of Proton-M rockets, but creates significant inconveniences to the work of TsENKI. The more prominent effect is that this decision practically puts an end to the Baiterek project and the development of the Soyuz-5 rocket, because the rocket has little commercial prospects, and without this, Kazakhstan does not need it.

(Lead photo: A Zenit rocket vertical at Site 45, the complex slated for modernization for Soyuz-5, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in November 2011. Credit: Roscosmos)

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