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Russian official says civilian satellites may be “legitimate” military target

A stack of 60 Starlink satellites being launched into space, with Earth in the background.
Enlarge / A stack of 60 Starlink satellites launched in 2019.

A Russian diplomat said civilian satellites could be legitimate military targets in a statement that seems to refer to Starlink providing broadband access in Ukraine. Civilian satellites “may become a legitimate target for retaliation,” the Russian official said in a statement to the United Nations’ open-ended working group on reducing space threats.

The quote is from an unofficial English translation of the statement on September 12 by Konstantin Vorontsov, head of the Russian delegation to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) working group. The translation is provided with other countries’ statements from the session on the UNODA’s meeting website.

Vorontsov said:

We would like to underline an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the events in Ukraine. Namely, the use by the United States and its allies of the elements of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure in outer space for military purposes. It seems like our colleagues do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect involvement in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.

SpaceX’s Starlink division sent satellite terminals to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of the country disrupted broadband networks, with the US providing funding for the effort. Satellite Internet access has been useful in Ukraine’s military operations against Russian forces.

Vorontsov’s statement went on to claim that the use of civilian satellites might violate the Outer Space Treaty:

Actions of the Western countries needlessly put at risk the sustainability of peaceful space activities, as well as numerous social and economic processes on Earth that affect the well-being of people, in particular in developing countries. At the very least, this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which provides for the exclusively peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community.

Russian news agency Tass identified Vorontsov in October 2021 as acting deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, but he no longer holds that position.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk warned in March of a “high” probability that Russia will attack Starlink equipment in Ukraine, though he was referring to the user terminals on the ground rather than satellites in space. A Russian cyberattack was able to temporarily disrupt satellite service provided by Viasat when the war began.

Musk later reported that Starlink resisted Russian jamming and hacking attacks. Then-Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin criticized Musk for helping Ukraine.

Russia’s anti-satellite missile test drew condemnation

Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November 2021. “Afterward, US officials condemned the act of shooting down the two-ton satellite at an altitude below 500 km, which is high enough that debris will remain in orbit for at least the next five to 10 years and may threaten many valuable assets, including the International Space Station,” an Ars article said at the time.

A article today on Vorontsov’s remark notes that “Russia’s statement at the UN OEWG on space threats come just one day after two more nations, Germany and Japan, pledged not to conduct destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, joining a chorus of countries including the United States, Canada, and New Zealand that have committed to reducing space debris following a November 2021 Russian test that drew widespread international condemnation. Russia has yet to make such a pledge.”

In April, Vice President Kamala Harris said the US “commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing” and called on all other countries to follow suit. “Simply put: These tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” Harris said.

Attacking Starlink in space would be no simple matter because SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 satellites and is seeking permission to eventually launch tens of thousands.

The article notes that Starlink hasn’t been the only satellite operator providing important services in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. “In addition to Starlink, commercial satellite imagery firms such as Planet, Maxar and BlackSky have been providing crucial intelligence by taking pictures of the conflict from above and sharing them openly, playing an unexpectedly important role throughout the Russian invasion,” the article said.

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