Russia warns it could fire missiles against Western civilian satellites

After threats to the ISS, Russia is now intimidating Western commercial satellite operators. Their support for Ukraine could make them legitimate military targets.

After the questionable threats to the International Space Station (ISS), it is now the turn of Western commercial satellites to suffer intimidation from the Russian authorities. In question? The role certain devices play in the unfolding of the war in Ukraine, helping Kyiv better defend itself and retaliate against the Russian invader.

The warning came from Konstantin Vorontsov, the deputy director of the non-proliferation and arms control department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Before a United Nations commission, he warned that Western satellites supporting Ukraine could be the target of reprisals.

It was the Russian press agency TASS that quoted the intervention of the official, then relayed in the news feed of Le Monde devoted to the conflict. According to him, these “quasi-civilian infrastructures could constitute a legitimate target for retaliatory strikes”. This last formulation suggests the use of missiles to destroy the satellites in question.

Aid in observation and communications

It is the use of civilian space assets in armed conflicts that annoys Russia. For Moscow, this participation in military operations is likely to change the nature of these infrastructures and make them legitimate targets. The deputy director did not mention a particular satellite operator to illustrate his point.

Today, the use of commercial satellites to support Ukraine is twofold: there are communications satellites, which allow the country to keep telephone and Internet links operational. There are also observation satellites that provide intelligence by taking pictures of the ground.

Starlink kits were offered to Ukraine from the first days of the invasion. Source: Mykhailo Fedorov

In this regard, we know that Maxar Technologies, an American company, has made it possible to detect the presence of Russian military convoys, the destruction of Mariupol or to demonstrate a little more the war crimes in Boutcha, thanks to its shots from space. For its part, SpaceX, another American company, provides kits to connect to the Internet via its Starlink satellites.

There is also a third area in which satellites can help: that is listening and signals intelligence. However, this is more of a domain reserved for military satellites, not civilians. It is certain that those of the Western powers are currently circling over Ukraine to pick up Russian telecommunications.

Russia has already struck, hacked, and operated in space

Russia has already demonstrated in the past its ability to strike against satellites. In November 2021, she carried out an anti-satellite attack against a Soviet satellite that no longer worked. The strike was successful, but it generated a cloud of debris that regularly interferes with the ISS and poses a long-term threat to space activities.

The use of a missile against a satellite would pose a global problem. Beyond the loss of the device itself, the fragments resulting from the explosion could also harm countries that are not at all linked to the conflict, and moreover Russia itself, which has its own satellite fleet. In addition, this debris may also generate other debris, by hitting other devices.

The ISS is hampered by the reckless production of debris in space. Source: NASA Johnson

Against the satellites, Russia is not only carrying out shooting exercises: it is also going on the offensive. In 2018, the Minister of the Armies Florence Parly made public a space incident, saying that the Russian satellite Louch Olymp had approached “a little too close” to Athena Fidus, a Franco-Italian satellite, in orbit since 2014 and dedicated to military communications.

More recently, the start of the offensive in Ukraine was accompanied by the hacking of a satellite. The incident was confirmed by the French military, and the United States, like the European Union and the United Kingdom, accused Moscow of orchestrating this cyber attack.

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