A close Russian ally is messing with the legendary spaceport it leases to the Kremlin, seizing assets over an unpaid debt

·3-min read
Baikonur
A Soyuz MS-04 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 20, 2017 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via Getty Images
  • Kazakhstan impounded Russian equipment at the Baikonur space base over a feud with the Kremlin.

  • Kazakh authorities say Russia companies never paid huge fines, leading it to impound equipment there.

  • Baikonur is a source of pride for Moscow, from which the Soviet Union sent the first man to space.

Authorities in Kazakhstan impounded Russian assets at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, escalating a post-Soviet feud over the legendary base from which mankind first touched the stars.

Baikonur is pivotal to the Russian space program. Even though it isn't physically in Russia, it has been leased by the Kremlin since Kazakhstan became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The result has been an uneasy relationship between Kazakhstan and its former masters in Moscow.

RFERL reported that Kazakh authorities banned Russia's Space Infrastructure Center, the agency responsible for space launch sites, from moving assets out of the country, and said its agency had cannot leave Kazakhstan.

The move is meant to compel the agency to pay what Kazakhstan says are fines worth $29.7 million owed for an assessment of environmental damage from Russia's Soyuz rockets, which use a highly toxic fuel.

In remarks to local media, Kazakh Minister of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry Bagdat Musin said that negotiations over the retrieval of the debt were ongoing.

He said the assets seized were specifically those of the agency, and not the entire base.

Baikonur has long been one of the world's most important spaceports.

Founded by the Soviet Union as a test range for intercontinental ballistic missiles, it was transformed into a space port in 1955.

Yuri Gagarin.
Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.Bettmann/Getty Images

It is the site from which Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in space, was launched in 1957, and where Yuri Gagarin became the first man to launch into space in 1961.

Those two achievements were early victories for the Soviets in the so-called Space Race with the US.

Soviet dominance in space helped compel the massive catch-up effort which saw the US eventually beat Russian to putting people on the moon.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continued to lease the site from Kazakhstan, signing a new $150 million a year lease in 2005, meant to extend Russian use of the site for 50 years.

It remains a key part of Russia's space program, and is the only site where Russia launches missions to the International Space Station.

But in recent years the Russian and Kazakhstan government have become embroiled in disputes over the terms of the lease, and more recently over the environmental impact of the rockets, The Diplomat reported.

Russia is building an alternative spaceport in the Amur region in the far east of Russia, in a project that was delayed amid accusations officials embezzled millions.

Kazakhstan is one of several notional allies of Russia which have been disquieted by its invasion of Ukraine, another former Soviet possession.

It and other nations have become increasingly willing to snub Russian President Vladimir Putin at public events, as reported by Insider's Sinéad Baker.

Its ambassador in London acknowledged to Insider's Alia Shoaib in November that it was concerned by the invasion, saying "There are some people who can extrapolate the scenario that it can happen to Kazakhstan."

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