The new Russian space center “Vostochny” has lost at least 11 billion rubles (185 million dollars) in massive thefts from the megaproject. The Federal Investigation Committee (SK) of Russia has reported that it is handling 12 more criminal cases related to the theft and that several senior officials have been imprisoned.
Professor Mark Galeotti, a Russian expert at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), told the BBC that the Vostochny’ scandal revealed the extent of corruption in Putin’s huge state bureaucracy. “How can he deal with that without declaring war on his own elite? He is not prepared to do that. This dependence on mega-projects creates enormous opportunities for embezzlement,” Galeotti said.
Vostochny was Russia’s first place specially designed for commercial space launches. The first launch took place in April 2016 and there have been four more since then. It is located in the far east of Russia, away from the big cities, which reduces the risk of rockets hitting any large urban center. The site used to be a Soviet missile base called Svobodny. Space missions are a source of national pride for Russia. It was the Soviet Union that sent the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961.
Visiting “Vostochny” in September, Putin told space officials: “This is the most important construction project in the country”. Vostochny’s total cost is currently estimated at $4.25 billion, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. But the project has been affected by cost overruns and delays. “Vostochny” is also a highly political movement, as Russia has so far depended on the Soviet-era Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for international space launches. Kazakhstan is a close neighbour, but having the main launch facility on Russian territory is safer for Moscow in the long run. The space centre is still under construction: a second launch pad under construction will house the Angara, a new heavy-duty rocket, with the inaugural launch set for 2021.