If you want to understand what Russia is doing to NASA and the US space program, you should know about the man who is doing it: Dmitry Rogozin. And there’s no better place to start than in the city once known as Stalingrad.
Amid all the recent resurgent Russian nationalism, there has been a movement afoot to revert Volgograd to its former name of Stalingrad. The problem is that Josef Stalin was… well, Josef Stalin. As a result, even President Vladimir Putin has started edging away from promoting the name change, instead deciding to “leave it up to the residents.” Putin clearly looks back on the Soviet era with fond memories of power and dominance — and he's no cream puff himself — but even Putin apparently thinks Stalin was a bit too much of a lawless, ruthless totalitarian.
Which is just the kind of conversational opening that Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin can’t resist.
Rogozin, Head of the Military-Industrial Commission (i.e., the Russian defense industry), hopped into the fray with a tweet noting that he personally “never doubted the need to return the name to great Stalingrad. Not for the sake of Stalin, but for the sake of Stalingrad's residents.” Which is sort of like saying the folks at the rally weren’t giving the Nazi salute for Hitler’s sake, they were just reaching for stuff on the top shelf.
Putin is probably the most skilled — and quite possibly the only — practitioner of martial arts in the most senior levels of Russian government. But where Putin is a ninth-degree black belt in Taekwondo, Rogozin is the Chuck Norris of stirring up trouble on Twitter. He has an uncanny ability to tweak, torque, and otherwise irritate folks with amazing verbal economy.
Rogozin is not a dumb man; he speaks four languages and holds a doctorate. His first college degree was in journalism… though it’s not clear what a Soviet journalism education consisted of. Rogozin then got an economics degree… though it’s not clear what he may have learned from Soviet econ professors other than long lists of bad ideas that don’t work. His education was then capped off by a doctoral degree in Philosophy and Theory of War. That's apparently where he learned everything there is to know about picking fights.
Rogozin had a pretty steady progression as a politician, working his way up the ranks until 2003 or so, when he was slotted into a leadership position in the far-right Russian Rodina [Motherland] Party. According to liberal journalist Anna Politkovskaya, “Rodina was created by the Kremlin's spin doctors specifically… to draw moderately nationalist voters away from the more extreme National Bolsheviks."
Once at the top of Rodina, Rogozin continued on his merry way, showcasing his preternatural ability to stir up trouble. Like one gem of a campaign ad, which was widely regarded as a racist slam against Azerbaijanis and other swarthy folks hailing from the post-Soviet republics to the south. The ad also did its part to cement the reputation of watermelons as the favorite fruit of international racism and bigotry.
Rogozin's infamous campaign ad.
When Rogozin was put into PR exile for that ad, he used the time-out to write a book. Then he returned to his political ascent, rising to a high-enough post that people with real influence began to take notice of him. By 2008, the people with real influence who had begun to take notice of him had come to notice specifically that Rogozin was really, really annoying, and so they shipped him off to Brussels, where he served as Russian Ambassador to NATO.
Once there, Rogozin immediately began annoying non-Russians for the greater glory of Mother Russia. He also tweeted like there was no tomorrow. During his time at NATO, Rogozin helped push — or at least presided during — the fateful decision not to admit Georgia or Ukraine into NATO. Rogozin also produced several rather inexplicable videos in which he drove around the Belgian countryside holding forth with entertaining, if not always strictly true, observations about life in Belgium. For instance, he explains that the idiom “pain in the butt” actually means "the impossibility of achieving victory," and that it can be traced back to Napoleon losing the Battle of Waterloo for hemorrhoid-related reasons. He also talks about the fact that it’s impossible to bribe traffic cameras because there’s no hole into which you can stick your money. He also bought an air raid siren.
Maybe it’s all extremely clever in Russian.
For those with less refined tastes, Rogozin also took the opportunity to use his posting in Brussels to film himself shooting the crap out of stuff. (Though in my opinion, watching Rogozin demonstrate weapons isn’t nearly as cool as watching VICE do it.)
But Rogozin’s real accomplishment as Ambassador to NATO, beyond his patriotic call-to-arms music video, was the launch of his wife’s debut music video for the song “Stay Forever.” Tatiana Rogozina doesn’t just have a passing interest in music — she wants to be a full-blown international pop sensation. She recorded an entire album which is available for download, and was even known to sing at various diplomatic receptions. Whether guests found it good, bad, or just plain weird probably depended on a lot of things. Like how hammered they were.
The point of bringing up these videos isn’t that Rogozin is a goofball. It’s that he clearly couldn’t focus on being an ambassador. The closest he managed to come to diplomacy was getting the reputation for being in-your-face, and for tweeting anything anyone told him strictly in confidence. His natural inclination to be an abrasive blowhard was just too overpowering not to tweet lots.
Oh, the other point of bringing up these videos is that Russia clearly decided years ago that NATO could go to hell. Otherwise, why would they have sent Rogozin?
At any rate, after some political machinations in Russia, Rogozin eventually scooted back to Moscow where he continued rising up the food chain (with a quick detour to go stir up Transnistria). As one of several deputy prime ministers, he now reports directly to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Rogozin’s main jobs as deputy prime minister are to chair Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission, direct the Russian equivalent of DARPA, and send out even more tweets.
Rogozin takes viewers on a tour of Waterloo.
More specifically, as the guy in charge of the Russian military-industrial complex (he's not in charge of the military, mind you, just of the defense industrial base), he also calls the shots for Russia’s space program… sort of. Without getting into bureaucratic details, the head of the Russian space agency reports to Rogozin, but Rogozin doesn’t actually run the agency. It’s sort of like the difference between a school principal and a teacher. The teacher reports to the principal, and theoretically the principal can barge into a classroom, override the teacher, and assign a student extra homework. But that's not really the way it works.
Anyway, Rogozin is the guy who is causing all the agitation about the US space program. Mostly because of the drama he stirs up on Twitter.
If you look at what has actually precipitated the tempest about space cooperation between Russia and the US — other than the wacky antics of the crazy Russians in and around Ukraine — it’s Rogozin hopping on Twitter and telling the US to suck it. This, compounded by the fact that space stuff is complicated — or at least more complicated than most articles are willing to cover accurately — means that his tweets are imbued with greater and greater significance until legions of people need to be carried to the fainting couch with attacks of the vapors.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the potential for chaos and madness isn’t incredibly high, or that this drama isn’t highlighting important issues relating to the US space industrial base and critical paths in various space architectures. But right now, it’s one senior official taking potshots via Twitter. That's a far cry from actual order changes, stopped shipments, contract expiration (or breach), or much of anything with real-world, tangible consequences. So, no, Russia is not kicking the US off the ISS, and Russia is not killing the space station in 2020.
The only tangible thing that Russia has done thus far is shut off GPS ground stations in Russia. Basically, the accuracy of a GPS receiver can be enhanced by supplementing the satellite signals with ground station signals. This enhanced accuracy is very useful in scientific and military applications, but won’t be much of a factor in civilian use of GPS. Moreover, the dispute about GPS ground stations in Russia is only partially related to the aforementioned Russian antics in Ukraine. The dispute actually goes back to US objections to hosting Russian ground stations for the Russian GPS, called GLONASS. That argument came about because some folks in the US were concerned that Russia was using the stations to gather electronic intelligence.
It’s always worth remembering actions speak louder than words. It’s even more important to remember that now, because Rogozin's words are so very loud that people are confusing them with actions.
When formal statements start coming in from actual Russian space organizations, there will be cause for concern. And if Russia goes from formal announcements to concrete measures, then it’s time to panic.
But up until then, it’s all just Rogozin trolling us.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan