04/02/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

The Specter of Space Station Sanctions: MAD

The sanctions that the Obama administration has thus far imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea are, well... laughable. They mainly target high-ranking, wealthy Russian government officials with close ties to President Vladimir Putin by freezing their assets in the United States and barring them from traveling to the US. It's likely that there will be more sanctions levied against Russia by the US and Europe, particularly if Russia continues to try and intervene in the Ukraine (notably the country's eastern region), and that they would be more comprehensive and carry much more of a financial and economic punch.

The dilemma for the West is how to really punish Russia and make it suffer without inflicting similar pain and suffering on itself. In an age where Russia and the West have developed close cooperative ties in so many areas, it's almost impossible to block transactions one way without having the move be mutually hurtful. Then there's the possibility that the Russians might decide to hit back by denying the West something that its needs from them. Hey, fair is fair, right?

One area of concern is access to the International Space Station (ISS). Ever since the final flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has depended on Russian Soyuz rockets and capsules to transport its astronauts to ISS. NASA pays the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos about $70.7 million per seat on a Soyuz capsule. A similar relationship existed between NASA and Rosaviakosmos for several years after the loss on re-entry of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003... although back then the price was $21.8 million.

The pay-per-flight arrangement with the Russians has worked well for everyone involved. The Russians make some money, and the Americans get continued access to a facility that took them a quarter of a century to build, launch and assemble, and cost US taxpayers more than $100 billion. The arrangement buys time for NASA to develop a US-made space vehicle that can carry humans to the space station. Both sides get what they need. Everyone's happy. Then there's the added benefit of Americans and Russians learning to behave themselves and work cooperatively in space -- no small achievement, given their misadventures on the ground.

Still, there is the possibility that the increasingly strained relations between the US and Russia over Crimea and the threat of further interventions in the Ukraine might eventually boil over and cause the Russians to stick it to NASA by denying rides to the space station. That remote possibility assumes that the Russians just might be willing to part with their pricey roundtrip fares. But even if that were true, there is the question of whether the Russians could operate the space station by themselves. The answer appears to be no.

At a House of Representatives Space Subcommittee hearing on March 27, 2014, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that if the US were denied access to ISS, "the partners would probably have to shut the space station down; if you are thinking that the Russians will continue to operate the International Space Station, it can't be done..."

The insinuation is that if the Russians want to play hardball on ISS, so can the Americans -- in which case it doesn't make sense for either to play. Kind of reminds you of the 'ole MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) strategic doctrine of the Cold War days. Yeah, yeah, shutting down the space station is not quite the same as mutual suicide. But the concept is roughly the same.