Written by: Alessandra De Martini
During the meeting of the United Nations Council on October 26, a new threat to pro- Ukrainian Western nations was identified. The Russian Senior Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov stated that “quasi-civilian space infrastructure can be a legitimate target for retaliation” (Voronstov, 2022). The main targets may include the American companies Space X, Iridium and Maxar, since they provide critical communication services for the Ukrainian people. The first of these supports Ukrainian troops with broadband Internet access; the satellite communication company contributes with a satellite network; and the latter captures images of the war from satellites (Roulette, 2022). However, Vorontsov has not yet mentioned any specific names of satellite companies that might be attacked.
Taking this into consideration, an escalation of the conflict in space could lead to a direct confrontation between the US and Russia. In response to Vorontsov’s statement, the US National Security Council Communications Director said that “any attack on U.S. infrastructure will be met with a response appropriate to the threat that’s posed to our infrastructure” (DW, 2022).
The damage from an anti-satellite missile attack would also affect other countries on the planet, as orbital debris has the potential to damage space infrastructure unrelated to the initial attack. Although none of the EU’s satellites had been affected so far, European Commissioner Thierry Breton argued that Russia’s 2021 anti-satellite weapon test “caused the generation of a significant amount of debris of a size that could endanger the EU’s spaces activities as well as our astronauts on the International Space Station” (Posaner, 2021).
Another concern is the lack of a proper legal framework to use in case of an anti-satellite attack. Since no precedent exists for such an act, the safety and defence industries and their lawyers are ill-prepared for a retaliatory strike in space. If Russia launched an anti-satellite attack, the main two space treaties used in this case would be the Outer Space Treaty (1967) and the Liability Convention (1972). However, both treaties merely mention monetary sanctions, which would not be an appropriate response to such an escalating act of war (Roulette, 2022).
As of today, attacks against a rival nation’s satellites by means of missiles are unprecedented. However, since the beginning of the Russian invasion last February, Moscow has repeatedly attempted to hack into the region’s Internet signals and has caused several blackouts throughout the country.
It is therefore essential to proceed with strengthening international space norms to prevent dramatic consequences of anti-satellite attacks. The first step in this direction would be a ban on all international debris-creating actions in space (Panda, 2021). Given the increasing number of space-faring states and private investors, most actors share a common interest in securing Earth’s orbit and accordingly develop new norms.
Panda A. (17.11.2021). The Dangerous Fallout of Russia’s Anti-Satellite Missile Test. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved on 2 November 2022 from https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/11/17/dangerous-fallout-of-russia-s-anti-satellite-missile-test-pub-85804
Vorontsov K. (26.10.2022). Statement by Deputy Head of the Russian Delegation Mr Konstantin Vorontsov at the Thematic Discussion on Outer Space in the First Committee of the 77th Session of the UNGA. Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations. Retrieved on 1.01.2022 from https://russiaun.ru/en/news/261022_v
DW. (27.10.2022) Ukraine updates: US warns Russia over satellites threats. DW. Retrieved on 1.01.2022 from https://www.dw.com/en/russia-ukraine-updates-us-warns-russia-against-targeting-wests-satellites/a-63570741
Roulette J. (28.10.2022). Russia’s anti-satellite threat tests laws of war in space. Reuters. Retrieved on 1.01.2022 from https://www.reuters.com/world/russias-anti-satellite-threat-tests-laws-war-space-2022-10-28/
Posaner J. (17.11.2022). EU’s Breton blasts Russia after missile strike on its own satellite. Politico. Retrieved on 2 November 2022 from https://www.politico.eu/article/breton-russia-satellite-missile-test-space/