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US Should Tighten Export Controls Surrounding Russia Space Cooperation, Expert Says

The U.S. should tighten its export controls to prevent Russia from acquiring U.S. technologies through international space cooperation activities, said Benjamin Schmitt, a national security and export control researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Schmitt, speaking during a March 29 event hosted by the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. specifically needs to impose more restrictions around what types of items it shares with Russians in the International Space Station context.

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The U.S. should be ensuring that U.S.-Russia space cooperation “is not somehow helping” Roscosmos, Russia’s state-controlled space company, and allowing “them to transfer technologies” to Russia, Schmitt said. Those restrictions should extend beyond technologies that are “not overtly military” and aren’t considered dual-use goods, he said, pointing to reports that Russia is harvesting parts and components from a range of imported commercial items to sustain its war effort in Ukraine, including refrigerators (see 2210310048).

“Remember, we're talking about dishwashers and washing machines,” Schmitt said. "Certainly technologies that are used in space are concerns.”

Schmitt said he was recently told by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson that there is a “large-scale review of the sort of technologies that are going to the Russian Federation or are allowed for export.” But Schmitt said he is concerned the U.S. isn't doing enough.

“We need to make sure that the science and technology that undergirds all of these technology export controls policies has a seat at the table consistently in our policymaking and our enforcement,” he said. U.S. export control policy should “be made a lot more strict and a lot more restrictive in terms of what goes over.”

He also said the U.S. should sever its space relationship with Russia. “I think that we basically need to take the same approach that we are with China,” Schmitt said. “No one's saying we need to increase space cooperation at that level with China, but certainly folks still say that with Russia. I think we need to end that.”

Another panelist during the event said the U.S. can’t rely only on export controls to prevent Russia from sustaining its war in Ukraine. “Just adding items to an export control list alone doesn't seem to be 100% effective,” said Jack Crawford, a research analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, adding that companies “are still finding ways to circumvent” export restrictions.

But he also said stopping exports to Russia isn’t solely the responsibility of the government. I think that corporations have a massive social corporate responsibility to continue finding ways to better maintain and better monitor where their products are ending up,” Crawford said. That may include better due diligence, he said, such as more communication between exporters and distributors to determine the ultimate end-user.

“It's almost going to require a jigsaw, case-by-case approach to develop a really dynamic and very specific” compliance approach, Crawford said. “It has to be tailored to the specific vulnerabilities facing each of these actors and each of these entities.”