Updated Apr 24, 2024 - World

Russia vetoes UN resolution denouncing use of nuclear weapons in space

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya during a during Security Council meeting on April 17.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya during a during Security Council meeting on April 17. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Russia on Wednesday vetoed a draft resolution before the United Nations Security Council that would have called on countries to prevent a nuclear arms race in outer space.

Why it matters: Russia's veto comes after U.S. officials alleged earlier this year that Moscow is developing a new space-based nuclear weapon to destroy satellites.

  • China was the only nation to abstain from the vote, and Russia the only vote against the measure. The other 13 members, including the U.S., voted in favor.

Driving the news: The UN draft resolution, prepared by Japan and the U.S., would have affirmed the obligation of countries to comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

  • The treaty bars signatories, including the U.S. and Russia, from placing "in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" or anywhere else in outer space.

State of play: Public details on the new Russian weapon are scant. White House officials have not disclosed its specific capabilities.

  • National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in February Russia had not deployed the capability in space and that the weapon could not cause "physical destruction" on Earth.

What they're saying: "Let me be clear, in no way does this vote undermine the obligations Russia, or any other state party, continues to have under the Outer Space Treaty," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

  • "Today's veto begs the question: why? Why, if you are following the rules, would you not support a resolution that reaffirms them? What could you possibly be hiding," Thomas-Greenfield asked Russia's ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya.

Before the vote, Nebenzya called the draft resolution a "dirty spectacle."

  • Nebenzya criticized the resolution for attempting to portray Russia as being uninterested in preventing an arms race in outer space and not upholding its obligations under the space treaty.
  • He said Russia seeks to keep space free of weapons of any kind.

Reality check: In 2021, Russia — which is not directly named in the resolution — tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its satellites in orbit.

  • The test generated a cloud of debris that NASA said endangered the International Space Station and its crew, and could have gone on to threaten other satellites.

The Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson told Axios she believes that the U.S. pursued the draft resolution to prod Russia to publicly say where it stands on certain obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

  • A weapon involving a nuclear detonation in orbit doesn't really make sense, Samson said, as Russia and the U.S. can already launch and detonate nuclear bombs in space with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
  • She hypothesized that it could be a nuclear-powered anti-satellite weapon, but warnings from the U.S. that the weapon violates the Outer Space Treaty suggest otherwise.

The other side: Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the allegations and has said that Russia opposes nuclear weapons in space.

  • However, Putin in recent years has repeatedly warned that Russia will use nuclear weapons if threatened.

Between the lines: Russia vetoed the UN resolution even though it and China have been working on a new treaty that would ban placing weapons in outer space or using threats or force against outer space objects.

  • The U.S. and its allies have raised objections to that treaty over definitional concerns and existing international legal obligations that already ban weapons in space and the targeting of space objects.

The big picture: Nuclear weapons in space aren't unprecedented.

  • The U.S. and the Soviet Union detonated at least nine in outer space throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • The largest of those tests, the U.S.' Starfish Prime in 1962, destroyed or damaged around 30% of the known satellites in orbit at that time while impairing electrical equipment hundreds of miles away in Hawaii.
  • Those types of tests, which were eventually banned by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, motivated the U.S. and the Soviet Union to begin negotiations on what eventually became the Outer Space Treaty.

Threat level: A nuclear detonation in space today would damage or outright destroy a large portion of the thousands of satellites currently in orbit.

  • Some of the radiation released in the explosion would become caught in Earth's magnetic fields, which could make parts of Earth's orbit untenable for most satellites for years.
  • Depending on the altitude of the explosion, radiation from the explosion could also create an electromagnetic pulse that causes widespread damage to electrical equipment on Earth.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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