With the Trump administration push to return to the moon, NASA is understandably looking for international partners for the great enterprise. According to Space News, one of those partners is Russia, a country that has lunar ambitions. Russia has a number of robotic missions to the moon in the works, and the space agency is expressing interest in participating in them. However, would such space cooperation work or even be appropriate in the age of Putin?

Russian lunar missions in the works

Russia, when it was the Soviet Union, famously lost the 1960s race to the moon. The last Soviet lunar mission was a Sample Return Mission called Luna 24 that landed in Mare Crisium region of the moon on August 18, 1976, retrieved a small geological sample, and returned it to Earth for study four days later.

Russia is proposing to restart its lunar exploration program over 40 years after Luna 24. Luna 25, a lander that is sometimes called Luna Glob, is currently scheduled to land on the moon in 2019. Lunar 26, an orbiter, Luna 27, a lander slated for the moon’s South Pole, and Luna 28, a sample return mission, are slated for 2021 through 2024. These missions have been much delayed due mainly to funding difficulties. A partnership with NASA, perhaps providing instruments and other services, might ensure that the Russian missions to the moon finally get off the ground.

Russian space cooperation in the age of Putin

The model for a partnership with Russia for the return to the moon is apparently the one the United States forged with that country for the international space station. President Bill Clinton, in one of his more brilliant policy moves, brought Russia in as a partner for the space station project first proposed by President Ronald Reagan.

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The policy change did three things. It tapped into Russia’s expertise in building and maintaining space stations. It gave Russian engineers something more productive to do than to lend their expertise to rogue regimes such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, then as now a significant concern. Finally, Clinton saved the space station project from the constant political attacks it was undergoing in Congress by giving it a foreign policy purpose.

The NASA-Russian space station project had been, on the whole, wildly successful. The space agency can be forgiven for wanted to replicate that success for the return to the moon.

However, in the 1990s, Russia, having been laid prostrate by its defeat in the Cold War, was far friendlier to the United States than it is now. Vladimir Putin, the current leader of Russia, is decidedly unfriendly to the United States and her interests. Putin is engaged in imperial adventures in the Ukraine and the Middle East. Some believe that Russian computer hacking attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 elections. Against that backdrop, NASA and the White House has to consider what if any level of cooperation with Russia is appropriate.