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Will new Russia sanctions block satellite exports?

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.

6 comments to Will new Russia sanctions block satellite exports?

  • Bravo to Canada and Prime Minister Steven Harper for taking the hardest line on Russian aggression of the G7 countries. Unlike his simpering peers he is not in denial about the threat posed by Putin.

  • mike shupp

    I take it we’re at an end of attempts to kill ITAR export restrictions.
    This will impact the health of the US space industry.

    • Jeff Foust

      I’m not sure what you mean by “an end of attempts to kill ITAR export restrictions.” As noted in the post, the final revised export control regulations for satellites and related components (Category XV of the USML) are due to be released in weeks, likely in early May. Based on the draft rules released last summer, most commercial satellites and related components will move off the USML and no longer be under the jurisdiction of ITAR. While it’s possible the current situation could delay the release of the final rule, there’s no sign the overall reform process will be derailed.

      • mike shupp

        Okay, good to hear, and thanks for the info.

        My thinking was that fears about transferring useful technology/experience from NASA to potentially dangerous foreigners were about to be heightened, as the Ukrainian situation brings back those pleasant memories of the Cold War, leading to retention of the USML in its present form.

  • http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ukraine-crisis/trampoline-space-russian-official-tells-nasa-take-flying-leap-n92616

    I must congratulate Obama on this. The sanctions are starting to hit home. Keep it up. Rogozin is the one that pockets the $400 million NASA sends him. Who knows what his cut is on ILS.

  • Jim Muncy


    of note, apparently the Commerce Department is applying the same policy as State. So, while I certainly hope Putin’s aggression is over long before the new Cat XV rule goes into effect 180 days after the rule is published soon, apparently commercial communications satellites will still be prevented from being exported to Russia if they are under Commerce jurisdiction.

    – Jim

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