Russia says Starlink satellites could become military targets
Urges peace in space, while also threatening to shoot western war zone internet out of the sky
Russia has warned the United Nations that commercial space systems – like Starlink – risk becoming legitimate military targets if they continue to be used in places like Ukraine.
Speaking at a meeting of the UN's committee on disarmament and international security, Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy head of Russia's delegation, accused the US of "provocative use of civilian satellites" and warned that an arms race in space was heating up, but added "the point of no return has not been passed."
Vorontsov accused the west, led by the US, of carrying out programs aimed at developing weapons "designed for the threat or use of force in, from or against outer space." He described such actions as "detrimental to international peace" and likely to escalate an arms race in space, something Vorontsov claimed Russia is keen on avoiding.
But while arguing in one breath that space weapons should face an internationally agreed upon ban, Vorontsov also said that "quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation." While not naming any particular companies, it's clear Vorontsov was referencing SpaceX's Starlink, which has been deployed by Ukrainian forces (most crucially, with US government financing) to maintain internet connections while fighting off Russian invaders.
"Apparently, [western] States do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect participation in military conflicts," Vorontsov said.
The US isn't without blame in the space arms race …
The veracity of Vorontsov's statement is questionable for what it leaves out of Russia's space history, but he's right to call the US out for its response to the UN General Assembly's repeated advancements of a "no first placement" treaty that would see UN members agree not to be the first to place weapons in space.
The UN has reaffirmed the resolution multiple times, continuing to place it as an action item on future agendas as terms of the agreement are discussed. The US has voted against the resolution on multiple occasions, as have Georgia, Israel, and, interestingly, Ukraine.
According to Vorontsov, no first placement has "become a major political factor in strengthening international peace, ensuring equal and undivided security for all and increasing the predictability and sustainability of … the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes."
… But neither is Russia
The UN's summary of the meeting includes a recap of the US's response to Russia's claims, which serve to illustrate that neither side is exactly blameless when it comes to ramping up orbital aggression.
- Starlink terminals reportedly smuggled into Iran amid internet shutdowns
- Starlink decoded for use as GPS alternative – without Elon Musk's help
- SpaceX's in-flight Wi-Fi, Starlink Aviation, takes to the skies
- Germany stands down cyber boss over Russian ties
In its response, the US accused Russia of making misleading statements about its missile tests that destroyed Russian satellites and introduced a resolution to ban such activity, calling the tests "in no one's interest."
Russia, the US noted, blew up one of its own satellites in late 2021, prompting the International Space Station to make orbit adjustments to avoid a collision with the debris. The ISS had to again adjust its orbit this week to avoid what is believed to be a piece of the same satellite.
The US also accused China of having developed an anti-satellite missile system, which China used to blow up one of its own weather satellites last year, prompting the ISS to make another course correction.
The actual US response to Russia's statement that civilian satellites are military targets when their service is used in a warzone is unknown, but there's no reason to expect any change from the status quo.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had threatened to pull Starlink service from Ukraine earlier this month, citing its untenable upkeep costs and asking for the Pentagon to pick up some of the bill. Musk seemingly reversed course shortly after news of the threats broke, saying SpaceX would "just keep funding Ukraine govt for free," although it wasn't clear if the new Twitter boss was being sarcastic.
Reports indicate Iranian activists have also been smuggling Starlink terminals into Iran since the government began restricting internet access due to recent protests. Neither SpaceX or the US government were involved in the smuggling operation, Iranian activists said.
Still, the fact that a US government-linked business' equipment has penetrated the borders of another country where the US has a strategic interest isn't likely to calm talk of a space arms race. ®