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NASA rebukes Russian space agency after cosmonauts display occupied Ukrainian flags

Cosmonauts wear Ukrainian colors on International Space Station (YouTube screenshot)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. space agency, NASA, issued a rare rebuke of its Russian counterpart after three cosmonauts on the International Space Station posed with the flags of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

NASA issued the statement on July 7, three days after the Russian space agency Roskosmos released photographs showing the three Russians and the flags of Russia-backed fighters in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Russia last week claimed its forces completely controlled Luhansk, and its troops were advancing slowly in what appeared to an effort to take all of Donetsk, as well. Ukraine has denied that Russia controls Luhansk entirely, though Ukrainian forces have been forced to withdraw from the last major cities there. The photographs were released to coincide with Russian officials’ proclamations.

NASA “strongly rebukes Russia using the International Space Station for political purposes to support its war against Ukraine, which is fundamentally inconsistent with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating countries to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes,” the agency said.

Roskosmos had no immediate public response to the U.S. statement.

Large parts of Luhansk and Donetsk have been largely controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

As relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated over the years, space exploration has been one of the rare places where the two countries have continued to cooperate.

Both nations have personnel on the orbiting station. The United States has relied heavily on Russian spacecraft to get its astronauts to and from the station, though the advent of private space travel is changing that.

Russia is negotiating to have its cosmonauts fly aboard a private U.S. space craft to the station under a barter-swap deal.

Even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February drew sweeping economic sanctions from the West, NASA has continued operations with Roskosmos. In late March, a U.S. astronaut returned to Earth from the station along with two Russian astronauts aboard a Russian space craft.

NASA’s administrator Bill Nelson last year scolded Russia after it conducted a test of an anti-satellite weapon, a test that sent a cloud of debris hurtling around the earth and threatening the space station.

“Their actions are reckless and dangerous,” Nelson said at the time.

While NASA has been reticent to make political statements or air its criticism publicly, the director of Roskosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has built a reputation for his sharp tongue and punchy rhetoric.

In April, two months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Rogozin warned that the station’s future was at risk if the United States and the West did not lift punitive sanctions.