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The Potential Rise of Russia’s Nuclear Space Arsenal

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Written by Clément Stratmann

Edited by Jake Gasson

Supervised by Emile Clarke

As the rhetoric of Russian officials continues to fuel tensions by fostering verbal escalations, the last weeks have seen an increased fear of the militarisation of space by the Kremlin, against the backdrop of European military leaders’ general doubts about the West’s readiness to assist and supply Kyiv sustainably in its continued defence efforts. On 17 February 2024, at the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced his concerns regarding alleged Russian plans to install satellite-disrupting technology as well as unconventional weaponry in outer space (New York Times, 2014). Such claims, if proven to be true, would constitute a clear breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty of the non-militarisation of outer space and potentially harm the worldwide transmission of data to global positioning systems (GPS) (Starling and Massa, 2024). This would, in turn, constitute a novel transgression of international law which, in the absence of deterring sanctioning tools, would likely once again result ina loss of credibility for the international system (The Conversation, 2024b). Until then, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty had established a common framework for the prohibition of nuclear testing and stationing of unconventional missiles in space (The Conversation, 2024a). The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies reported that Russia allegedly went ahead with testing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons as far back as 2021 against formerly operable Soviet space satellites, while simultaneously planning and carrying out routine exercises of cyber- and jamming attacks against neighbouring spatial equipment (BBC, 2024).

As the American House Intelligence Committee convened on 14 February to discuss the prospect of possible nuclear mayhem implanted inouter space, three scenarios were being considered: the stationing of a nuclear weapon in orbit, a nuclear-powered satellite serving as a fuelling station for a device of superior capacity, and the placement of a nuclear missile in permanent orbit (The Economist, 2024). Blinken later clarified his concerns and underlined the lack of existing capacities within the Russian arsenal which could justify fears of such a threat (Roulette & Mohammed, 2024).

These events have unfolded against the backdrop of the successful FBI-led American pushback against Russian cybercrime and the Kremlin’s satellite test of 2022. Nevertheless, Washington seems to worry that the Russians could far exceed the damage caused by the 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear test on Johnston Atoll (New York Times 2024). The experiment had set off an 1.45-ton‘megaton nuke’ (BreakingDefense, 2024), unseen until that point, approximately 450 kilometres above sea level, resultingin a shut-off for the nearby island of Hawaii as the electromagnetic field wrought havoc across both phone- and communication lines alike. If the Russians were to conduct a similar experiment nowadays, it would likely result in the destruction of at least close to 8,300 “low earth orbit” satellites (The Economist, 2024). As such,Congress argues that Russia seeks to redefine boundaries beyond existing space jurisprudence to their interest. Lawmakers pointed out that Moscow’s action could affect the International Space Station (ISS) and heavily affect the Earth’s atmosphere by propelling mass debris into the atmosphere (The Conversation, 2024b). Subsequently, experts from Politico have argued that this would seriously affect both the work and equipment of the ISS to such an extent that afull evacuation could be necessary (Politico, 2024). Amidst the speculation, The Economist argues that rather than going rogue in the fashion of North Korea and Iran by straight-up engaging inoffensive destruction of equipment, Moscow would see its interests well met by sending electromagnetic pulses close to the equipment of whoever party it deems hostile to its interests (The Economist, 2024), thus being capable of frying all satellite activity within a certain orbital perimeter (Roulette & Mohammed, 2024).

Both ground forces and precision strike missile infrastructure rely heavily on GPS systems which would be wiped out by the gamma radiation created by a nuclear detonation near or aimed at a satellite complex (The Conversation, 2024a). Now that the current Russian administration has set its goal of restoring what it claims to have been its natural zone of influence, questions remain surrounding the consequences of the Kremlin failing to achieve its goal via conventional means. James Action of Carnegie Endowment, however, remains optimistic about Western competitive edge in the matter. He argues that especially the United States’ Armed Forces’ interest in proliferating constellations of satellite and space defence equipment such as produced by SpaceX and distributed for military use to Ukraine has granted the West the capability of resisting wipeout attempts, as they function on a chain-like basis which cannot be rendered inactiveat once (The Economist, 2024). Unsurprisingly, Moscow later reacted to the concern of Western officials by dismissing the allegations as a ‘malicious fabrication’ (Roulette & Mohammed, 2024) aimed at creating a pretext for passing a $97 billion defence bill, $60 billion of which is destined forUkraine (The Conversation, 2024b).

Although fear of space-induced destruction may currently appear some what justified due to recent Russian progress aimed at maintaining air superiority over Ukrainian airspace, such Western fears seem to be exacerbated by the concern over former president and running candidate Donald Trump’s threats of enforcing America’s departure from the NATO-alliance (VIKAS, 2024). This, in turn,has contributed to Europe’s sober assessment of what a Russian victory in Ukraine might entail for the security of the continent. Space-based nuclear missile destruction remains not only feasible but could very well become a more likely worst-case contingency on the continent within the fore see able future. Therefore, it lies in the West’s interest to capitalise on its developed defence industrial capacities and act. Russian non-compliant ground-launched cruise missiles were already stationed in impact proximity to most European states between 2014 and 2022, while Europeans confined themselves to the comfort of the American nuclear umbrella as deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Germany since the 1990s (Loss, 2024).As Brussels and Washington possess both superior industrial manufacturing capacity while maintaining global access points to intelligence supplies, Europeans need not fear the firepower of their systemic competitor lest they aptly prepare by arming Ukraine and themselves to meet their geostrategic future head-on.


BBC News. (2024). Russia developing ‘troubling’ new anti-satellite weapon, US says.

Breaking Defense. (2024, February). From Russia with nukes? Sifting facts from speculation about space weapon threat. /

Loss, R. (2024, February 13). Living in a nuclear-curious world: America’s weakening grip on non-proliferation. European Council on Foreign Relations.

Roulette, J., & Mohammed, A. (2024, February 15). Russia seen highly unlikely to put nuclear warhead in space. Reuters.

Starling, C. G., & Massa, M. J. (2024, February 17). Russian nuclear anti-satellite weapons would require a firm US response, not hysteria. Atlantic Council.

The Conversation. (2024a, February 15). Is Russia looking to put nukes in space? Doing so would undermine global stability and ignite an anti-satellite arms race. The Conversation.

The Conversation. (2024b, February 19). Russia’s space weapon: Anti-satellite systems are indiscriminate, posing a risk to everyone’s spacecraft. The Conversation.

The Economist. (2024, February 15). What is Russia’s mysterious new space weapon? The Economist.

The New York Times. (2024, February 17). Russia plans to put nuclear weapons in orbit, alarming US officials. The New York Times.

VIKAS. (n.d.). Russia is developing space-based nuclear weapons – Report? Medium.