Russian Cosmonauts on ISS Pose With Luhansk Flag, Congratulate Troops

The International Space Station's (ISS) Russian commander plus two other cosmonauts were seen holding up a flag in support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

On Monday, Russia's Roscosmos space agency published a photo on its Telegram channel of three smiling ISS cosmonauts, commander Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov, presenting the flag of the Luhansk People's Republic to the camera.

The Luhansk People's Republic is a breakaway state located in Ukraine that was formed by pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and proclaimed independent. It has been central to conflicts between Ukraine and Russia over the years, including the Donbas War in 2014 and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine this year.

On Sunday, Russia claimed that its forces had gained full control of the Luhansk province.

Roscosmos astronauts
Roscosmos astronauts (from L-R) Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev, and Denis Matveev are seen holding the flag of the pro-Russian Luhansk People's Republic in this photo shared by Roscosmos on July 4, 2022. The previous day, Russia claimed it had gained full control of the Luhansk region in Ukraine. Roscosmos

Along with the photo, Roscosmos published a caption that celebrated "Liberation Day of the Luhansk People's Republic" and added, translated from Russian: "Roscosmos and our cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, who are working today at the International Space Station, join the congratulations of the head of the LPR, Leonid Pasechnik, on the 'new Day of the Great Victory.'

"This is a long-awaited day that residents of the occupied areas of the Luhansk region have been waiting for [for] eight years. We are confident that July 3, 2022 will forever go down in the history of the Republic."

The statement is a politically sensitive one as Russia's internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine continues. From the beginning of the conflict on February 24 to July 3, an estimated 4,889 civilians in Ukraine have been killed, including 335 children, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

It's also notable that the Russian cosmonauts made their statement aboard the ISS, a space they share with astronauts from the United States. Russia is a key partner in the station's operation.

Oleg Artemyev became ISS commander in May this year, taking over from U.S. astronaut Thomas Marshburn. Commander positions tend to be held for a few months before they are rotated.

The ISS is an international endeavor with occupants often putting politics aside for the sake of cooperation in space. However, global tensions with Russia have thrown ISS relations into doubt this year. NASA has said repeatedly that ISS operations are continuing as normal despite this, while Russia has said it plans to maintain a presence on the station at least until 2024.

At the same time, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin had previously threatened that the ISS could be destroyed without Russia's help, and there were even some concerns that Russia could renege on its commitment to bring home U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei from the ISS earlier this year. In the end, a Russian spacecraft returned Vande Hei home safely.