On Monday, the State Department announced a new round of sanctions against Russia to protest its actions in the ongoing Ukraine crisis. Specifically, the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) “will deny pending applications for export or re-export of any high technology defense articles or services regulated under the U.S. Munitions List to Russia or occupied Crimea that contribute to Russia’s military capabilities.” In addition, it will revoke any existing license applications that meet that guideline. All other existing or pending applications “will receive a case-by-case evaluation to determine their contribution to Russia’s military capabilities.”
At first glance, this would appear to pose an issue for the commercial satellite industry, particularly US-built satellites or satellites with US-built components, slated for export to Russia for launch. Commercial satellites and related components remain on the US Munitions List, and while pending reforms would remove most of those satellites and components from the list, those reforms won’t take effect until late this year (180 days after publication of the final revised export rule, expected in May.) Since late March, the State Department has put a hold on license applications for the export of “defense articles and defense services” to Russia, according to the DDTC website, a decision that is holding up the export of several commercial satellites, Space News reported late last week.
Yet, the State Department’s decision on Monday, as severe as it may sound, could actually clear the way for those satellites’ export for launch. If the satellites are not deemed to “contribute to Russia’s military capabilities,” then the State Department could then go ahead and approve them for launch, freeing them from their current legal limbo. The announcement provided no additional details on what licenses would be denied.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, an unidentified “senior administration official” said those applications involving technology needed by the Russian “defense industrial complex” would be denied. “We are now in the process of going through them,” the official said of the current licenses and applications, “and really scrutinizing them to see which ones involve technology that the Russian defense industrial complex is in need of, and those are the ones that will be denied.” Since the satellites being exported to Russia are effectively just “passing through” the country for launch, and not being used directly by the Russian military, it would appear to provide a loophole to allow those satellites to be exported—provided the State Department chooses to interpret it in this manner.
Outside the US, one country has already cancelled plans to launch a satellite on a Russian vehicle because of the crisis. Late last week, the Canadian government said it would not launch its M3MSat on a Soyuz rocket this summer, citing “the current events in the Ukraine.” M3MSat is a small satellite that was one of several payloads on the Soyuz. Two other Canadian-built smallsats that were also slated to launch on that rocket have also been removed from that mission. The Canadian government said it would seek alternative launch arrangement for those satellites, but may forfeit the funds paid to Russia for the now-canceled launch.