Russian Threats to Peace in Space

By Grant Anderson
January 6, 2023

Among all of the frightening and depressing aspects of Russia’s war on Ukraine – a conflict that has swiftly upended a wide range of economic, political and security assumptions – is the Kremlin’s continuous and unabashed disregard for acceptable international norms. One can accurately suppose that this is the natural method of a bullying, fading, superpower – a power both hell-bent on a conquest of grievance towards its smaller neighbor and desperate to prove to the world that it can still flex its muscles.

National Space and Intelligence Center

Of course, what Russia is doing in Ukraine is not unlike other brute force operations of the past. And despite the eye-opening losses that Russia has endured over the last ten months, we should not expect “the Bear” to suddenly understand something clearly at last and stop throwing its citizens into the cauldron.

With that in mind, Russia’s war on Ukraine has resulted in the breaking of several other boundaries that stretch beyond the near-destruction of a country – and which carry much wider strategic significance for the world. The list of conventions broken, and lines crossed is considerable. They’ve weaponized food by threatening the delivery of grain exports to the global community. They have utilized direct threat of energy supply disruptions, facilitated by questionable policy changes in the west. They’ve directly targeted and ruined civilian infrastructure. And they’ve leveled ominous hints about the use of nuclear weapons – pushing the world to contemplate the unthinkable.

But another highly important convention has been broken by Russia as well – their intentional efforts to threaten peace in space. In fact, on multiple occasions over the course of the war, Russia has purposefully busted a number of norms regarding accepted practices and international behavior high above Earth. Not only do their actions reach beyond the bounds of accepted and understood conduct, but they threaten to make space a domain of conflict. This is something the global community has taken great pains to avoid, especially with the rapidly growing use of space for multiple national defense and economic interests.

Early in the war, Russia threatened to leave NASA astronauts behind on the International Space Station – a petty and churlish move – but one that nonetheless helps to show Russia’s true colors. And most recently in late October, they ominously hinted that commercial satellites “may become a legitimate target for retaliation,” which brings not only government, but commercial entities into the direct line of fire. While modern nations obviously rely on space for defense and national security purposes, explicit announcements to imperil, incapacitate or destroy a foreign power’s infrastructure, or their commercial infrastructure, pushes a line. In fact, should an attack on a nation’s space assets be conducted, it would constitute an act of war.

And even if all of this is simply bellicose posturing, the damage has been done. More broadly, Russia’s rhetoric has clarified in what theorists have been concerned about for years. And once a threat is made, a better idea of what a belligerent power is willing to do is established. It may not be kinetic. It may not be an attack. But it is a threat to us nonetheless and we should not discount it.

On one hand, perhaps we should not be surprised that Russia would resort to such moves – particularly given how much they’ve done already that is both unexpected and beyond the pale. On the other, these statements should be beneath a country that clearly craves the world’s respect. But in looking at history, even when America and the West were locked in opposition to the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War – when tensions were extremely high, proxy wars raged in far-flung locales, and competition to develop atomic weaponry was at an apex of effort – Russia and the U.S. agreed to cooperate in space. The Apollo-Soyuz program exemplified the idea that superpowers could still find a place of peace – in space.

Looking ahead, our nation’s leaders need to call these kinds of actions out more forcefully and more consistently. All diplomacy aside, we simply should not tolerate this kind of behavior. We are at a point now where clear and affirmative communication from our political leaders at the national level is needed – not only to call bad behavior for what it is, but to show resolve, stand firm, and to avoid misinterpretation or confusion. This is especially true given similar, ongoing escalatory challenges from Iran and China, where constant needling and challenging norms carries great room for strategic miscalculation.

Russia’s suggestion that they could or would disable satellites or leave an astronaut stranded on the space station is in keeping with their reckless behavior over the course of this conflict. But all of these boundaries, conventions and norms exist for a reason. And they are in alignment with long-standing codes of behavior that have been observed by the forces of civilized nations in conflict for ages – like treating prisoners of war humanely, rescuing enemy sailors after their ships have been sunk, and not shooting at pilots who have ejected from their aircraft. Breaking every other long-understood convention along the way and threatening peace in space is no way for a responsible global power to act, and we should not forget it.

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