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

Zoom in / A stack of 60 Starlink satellites launched in 2019.

A Russian diplomat said civilian satellites could be legitimate military targets in a statement that appeared to refer to Starlink, which provides broadband access in Ukraine. Civilian satellites “could become a legitimate target for retaliation,” the Russian official said in a statement to the United Nations open space threat reduction task force.

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

Vorontsov said:

We would like to highlight an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of space technology and became evident during the events in Ukraine. Namely, the use by the US and its allies of elements of civil, including commercial, infrastructure in space for military purposes. It is as if our colleagues do not realize that such actions actually constitute indirect participation in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure can become a legitimate target for retaliation.

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

Vorontsov’s statement claimed that the use of civilian satellites could violate Space Treaty:

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

Russian news agency TASS identified Vorontsov in October 2021 as Acting Deputy Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but he I can’t take it anymore this position.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk warned in March of a “high” likelihood that Russia would attack Starlink equipment in Ukraine, although he was referring to user terminals on the ground, not satellites in space. It was a Russian cyber attack may temporarily interrupt satellite service provided by Viasat when the war began.

Musk later reported that Starlink withstood Russian jamming and hacking attacks. The then head of the Russian Space Agency, Dmitry Rogozin criticized Musk for the aid of Ukraine.

Russia’s anti-satellite missile test drew condemnation

Russia conducted an anti-satellite missile test in November 2021. “U.S. officials have since condemned the act of bringing down the two-ton satellite at an altitude below 500 km, high enough that the debris will remain in orbit for at least the next five to 10 years and could endanger many valuable assets, including the International Space Station,” an Ars article said at the time.

A article today regarding Vorontsov’s remark notes that “Russia’s statement to the UN OEWG on space threats comes just one day after two other nations, Germany and Japan, promised not to conduct destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) testsjoining a chorus of countries including the United States, Canada and New Zealand that have pledged to reduce space debris following a November 2021 Russian test that sparked widespread international condemnation. Russia has not yet made such a promise.”

In April, Vice President Kamala Harris said the US was “committed to not conducting destructive tests of direct-launch anti-satellite missiles” 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 not be easy because SpaceX did it launched more than 3,000 satellites and is seeking permission to eventually release tens of thousands.

The article notes that Starlink is not the only satellite operator providing important services in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “In addition to Starlink, commercial satellite imaging firms such as Planet, Maxar, and BlackSky provided crucial intelligence by taking overhead images of the conflict and sharing them openly, playing an unexpectedly important role during the Russian invasion,” the article said.

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