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Russia vetoes UN resolution to ban space nuclear weapons

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Russia vetoes UN resolution to ban space nuclear weapons

Russia on Wednesday vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have reaffirmed a nearly 50-year ban on putting weapons of mass destruction into orbit, two months after reports that Russia plans to do just that.

Russia’s vote against the resolution was not a surprise. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia has veto power over any resolution presented to the body. China abstained from the vote and 13 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution.

If passed, the resolution would have affirmed a binding obligation in Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which says that nations “shall not place in orbit around the Earth any object carrying nuclear weapons or any other type of massive destruction weapons”. “

Going nuclear

Russia is one of the 115 parties to the Outer Space Treaty. Wednesday’s Security Council vote continues reports in February that Russia is developing an anti-satellite nuclear weapon.

“The United States believes that Russia is developing a new satellite that carries a nuclear device,” said Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser. “We have heard President Putin say publicly that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space. If that were the case, Russia would not have vetoed this resolution.”

The United States and Japan proposed the joint resolution, which also called on nations not to develop nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction designed to be placed in orbit around the Earth. In a statement, American and Japanese diplomats highlighted the danger of a nuclear detonation in space. Such an event would have “serious implications for sustainable development and other aspects of international peace and security,” U.S. officials said in a news release.

By abstaining from the vote, “China has demonstrated that it would rather defend Russia as its junior partner than safeguard the global nonproliferation regime,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN.

U.S. government officials have not offered details about the exact nature of the anti-satellite weapon they say Russia is developing. A nuclear explosion in orbit would destroy numerous satellites (from many countries) and endanger astronauts. Space debris created by a nuclear detonation could clog orbital traffic lanes needed for future spacecraft.

The Soviet Union launched more than 30 military satellites powered by nuclear reactors. Russia’s military space program languished in the first two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, and U.S. intelligence officials say it still lags behind the capabilities possessed by the U.S. Space Force and the Chinese military.

Russia’s military funding has largely gone to the war in Ukraine over the past two years, but Putin and other top Russian officials have raised threats of nuclear force and attacks on space assets against their adversaries. The Russian military launched a cyberattack against a commercial satellite communications network when it invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Russia has always had an appetite for anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. The Soviet Union experimented with “co-orbital” ASATs in the 1960s and 1970s. When deployed, these co-orbital ASATs would have attacked enemy satellites by approaching them and detonating explosives or using a grappling arm to knock the target out of orbit.

In 1987, the Soviet Union launched an experimental weapons platform into orbit to test laser technologies that could be used against enemy satellites. Russia shot down one of its own satellites in 2021 on a widely condemned “direct promotion” ASAT test. This Russian direct ascent ASAT test followed demonstrations of similar capability by China, the United States, and India. The Russian military has also demonstrated over the past decade satellites that could attack an adversary’s spacecraft in orbit or fire a projectile to destroy an enemy satellite.

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