US fears Russia might put a nuclear weapon in space

Even if Russia does place a nuclear weapon in orbit, US officials are in agreement in their assessment that the weapon would not be detonated. Instead, it would lurk as a time bomb in low orbit, a reminder from Putin that if he was pressed too hard with sanctions, or military opposition to his ambitions in Ukraine or beyond, he could destroy economies without targeting humans on Earth.

Despite the uncertainties, Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the possibility of the Russian nuclear move with his Chinese and Indian counterparts Friday and Saturday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Blinken’s message was blunt: Any nuclear detonation in space would take out not only American satellites but also those of Beijing and New Delhi.

In addition, US officials and outside analysts say, global communications systems would fail, making everything from emergency services to cellphones to the regulation of generators and pumps go awry. Debris from the explosion would scatter throughout low-Earth orbit and make navigation difficult if not impossible for everything from Starlink satellites, used for internet communications, to spy satellites.

Since Putin has made clear his disdain for the United States, Blinken told them, it was up to the leaders of China and India, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to talk him down from what could turn into a disaster.

In a statement Saturday, the State Department said that in his meetings, Blinken had “emphasized that the pursuit of this capability should be a matter of concern.”

“He will continue raising it in additional meetings at the Munich Security Conference,” the statement continued.

It was unclear how much of the intelligence about the 2022 Russian satellite tests, which has not been previously reported, Blinken shared when he met with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, or with India’s, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Some intelligence officials had objected to sharing too much about what they know because the details of the Russian program remain highly classified, US officials said. But others argued that the United States needed to share enough to convince China and India of the seriousness of the threat. During the Munich meetings, the two men took in the information, officials said, and Wang repeated China’s usual lines about the importance of the peaceful use of outer space.

“Relying on our greatest adversary to deliver messages to Moscow is not a great practice but in this case, if the reporting is true, China would have a vested interest in delivering the message,” Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an email Saturday.

Blinken was attempting to replicate what US officials believe was a series of successful warnings to Putin in October 2022, when there was serious alarm in Washington that Russia was preparing to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Putin backed off the threats, although it is still unclear how much pressure he was under, especially from Xi, who has tightened his ties with Moscow.

Both the United States and Soviet Union briefly tested nuclear weapons in space before the ratification of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the placement of nuclear weapons of any kind into orbit, as well as further nuclear detonations in space. A 1962 test by the United States, launched from Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, was particularly damaging. Exploding 250 miles into the atmosphere, the electromagnetic pulse destroyed electronics in Hawaii, disrupting telephone service there, and took out at least a half-dozen orbiting satellites out of the sky, and damaged others.

Realizing how damaging the test was, a year later the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere or outer space.

If Putin deployed the weapon into low-Earth orbit, US officials fear it would do more than simply violate the 1967 treaty. It is one of the last remaining major arms control treaties still in effect. Biden administration officials have expressed concerns that if Russia violates it, other nations — such as North Korea — may follow suit.

For Putin, launching a nuclear weapon into space would escalate his growing confrontation with the United States and Europe. His inability to take over Ukraine, even with a far larger military, has vividly demonstrated the limits of Russia’s conventional forces. In the view of American and European intelligence agencies, that has made him more dependent on nuclear arms and cyberattacks, his most potent asymmetric weapons.

One senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive nuclear matters, said that he thought Russia was developing space-based nuclear weapons because Putin believes none of his adversaries, including the United States, would risk a direct confrontation with Russia over the deployment of a nuclear-armed satellite.

Another intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said that Putin might be betting that the threat of a nuclear explosion in space is different from the threat of the destruction of Los Angeles or London. The official added that Putin would be threatening hardware rather than people, which he may believe gives him more latitude to deploy the new satellite.

Publicly, the White House has only described the new Russian weapon as antisatellite technology, offering no details. But officials have insisted it poses no direct threat to human populations.

“We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth,” John Kirby, a senior national security official, told reporters.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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David E. Sanger Julian E. Barnes