Russia demanded the U.K. sell its stake in satellite startup OneWeb Ltd. and threatened to cancel a launch planned for Saturday if it didn’t, retaliating against Western sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine.
Kremlin space agency Roscosmos made the ultimatum in a statement on its official Twitter page on Wednesday and blamed “the U.K.’s hostile stance toward Russia.” It also demanded guarantees that OneWeb’s satellites wouldn’t be used for military purposes and gave a deadline of 9:30 p.m. Moscow time March 4 for answers.
OneWeb, whose headquarters are in London, was planning a launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome using a Soyuz-2.1b rocket operated by France’s Arianespace SA. Russia, which supplies the spacecraft, said it would be removed from the launch. No alternative is expected to be available quickly or without significant cost to OneWeb.
A spokesman for the satellite firm declined to comment. In a post on Twitter, U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said “there’s no negotiation on OneWeb: the UK Government is not selling its share.”
OneWeb was bought by the U.K. government and India’s Bharti Global in a surprise bankruptcy rescue deal in 2020. Cancellation of the launch this week would be a setback for the company’s ambition to establish an initial constellation of 648 spacecraft and win customers, including lucrative military contracts, to pay back the billions invested by shareholders.
Elon Musk, who has launched about 2,000 Starlink satellites using his own SpaceX rockets, this week donated terminals for Ukrainians to use his rival network.
There’s no indication the U.K. would back down and sell its stake, or if it did who it would offload it to if not existing shareholders. Since its rescue from bankruptcy, OneWeb has built an international consortium of owners including France’s Eutelsat SA, Japan’s Softbank Group Corp and South Korean conglomerate Hanwha.
British opposition party lawmaker Darren Jones, who chairs the business Parliamentary committee, raised concerns about OneWeb’s Russian connections in a letter to government on Tuesday.