Russian cosmonauts display flag of occupied Luhansk region on ISS

The Russian cosmonauts who were lauded at the outset of the war on Ukraine in February for appearing to show their support for their invaded neighbours with yellow and blue spacesuits have been pictured on the International Space Station (ISS) holding the flags of the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk, alongside a message celebrating what the Russian space agency Roscosmos termed the “liberation” of Luhansk.

In a message posted to the official Roscosmos Telegram channel, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergey Korsakov are shown holding the flags of the two occupied territories, whose occupiers are recognised as legitimate authorities only by Russia and Syria among UN member states.

The message accompanying the pictures says: “Liberation Day of the Luhansk People’s Republic! We celebrate both on Earth and in space.”

Roscosmos goes on in the statement to say: “Roscosmos and our cosmonauts, 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 eight years. We are confident that 3 July 2022 will for ever go down in the history of the republic. Citizens of the allied Donetsk People’s Republic, wait!”

It is unclear how the flags of the two self-declared republics came to be onboard the ISS. Also at the station working with the three Russian cosmonauts are Nasa’s American astronauts Jessica Watkins, Robert Hines and Kjell N Lindgren, as well as the Italian Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The crew, Nasa and the ESA have not commented on the flag-raising. Hines tweeted about the US’s Independence Day on Monday.

“Happy Birthday, America! … I am so thankful for the opportunities our country provides. God Bless America!” he wrote, adding emojis of the US flag, a hamburger and a hotdog.

Artemyev, Matveyev and Korsakov were the first Russian crew to join the ISS since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, and when they emerged from their Soyuz capsule in yellow uniforms it was widely seen as a message of solidarity with Ukraine. However, the cosmonauts were coy about that interpretation. Asked about the suits at the time, Artemyev said every crew chose their own.

“It became our turn to pick a colour. But in fact we had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it,” he said. “So that’s why we had to wear yellow.”

The Luhansk People’s Republic claims to control almost all of Ukraine’s eastern oblast of Luhansk, which borders Russia, after Ukrainian forces withdrew from the city of Lysychansk on Sunday.

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