May 6, 2024 - World

UN debates space weapons as new details emerge on Russian nuclear satellite

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya during a Security Council meeting in April 2024.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya during a Security Council meeting in April 2024. Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations on Monday debated Russia's recent veto of a resolution that would have called on countries to prevent a nuclear arms race in outer space.

Why it matters: The debate came days after U.S. officials publicly disclosed new details on a nuclear space weapon that Russia is allegedly developing.

Catch up quick: U.S. officials publicly alleged earlier this year that Russia is pursuing a "nuclear-capable" anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) but the allegation was scant on details.

  • In response to the alleged weapon, the U.S. and Japan last month put a draft resolution before the Security Council that would have called on countries to affirm their obligation to comply with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
  • Russia vetoed the resolution, forcing the United Nations General Assembly to debate Russia's rejection on Monday.

What they're saying: During debates, Russia's Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya said Russia vetoed the resolution because it only specified nuclear weapons be prohibited from space rather than all weapons.

  • He also said Russia vetoed it because existing international agreements, like the Space Treaty, cover the resolution.

The other side: Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador and deputy permanent representative, noted that the purpose of the resolution was to affirm countries' commitments to the treaty, specifically its prohibition of placing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in outer space.

  • Wood said Russia was attempting to conceal its "true intentions" by pushing to change the resolution's language.

Between the lines: Though Russia is pursuing a resolution against putting weapons in outer space, it has conducted multiple ASAT tests in recent years.

  • In 2021, it tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its satellites in orbit, creating a cloud of debris that endangered the International Space Station and its crew, according to NASA.

The big picture: Days before Monday's debate, a Pentagon official publicly confirmed that the alleged weapon involves a nuclear detonation in space.

  • Previously, White House officials did not disclose the weapon's specific capabilities, only noting that it was a "nuclear-capable" space weapon that could not cause "physical destruction" on Earth.
  • Mallory Stewart, the assistant secretary of state for arms control, speaking before the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Friday, said the weapon would occupy orbits typically not used by other spacecraft because of elevated radiation levels.

Zoom out: Stewart said the alleged capability isn't currently in orbit, but nuclear weapons and satellite experts, including Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, noted that a satellite already in orbit fits that description: Kosmos-2553.

  • The Russian Defense Ministry launched the mysterious satellite in February 2022 but little is known about its capabilities.
  • It's currently orbiting around 1240 miles (2,000 kilometers) above Earth, which is around the threshold of medium-Earth orbit.
  • Stewart said Russia has claimed the satellite is used to stress test electronics in a radioactive environment, but she said the radiation levels of its orbit aren't high enough to conduct such research.

Threat level: The detonation of a weapon as described by Plumb would damage or outright destroy a large portion of the thousands of satellites currently in orbit.

  • Depending on the altitude of the explosion, radiation from it could also create an electromagnetic pulse that causes widespread damage to electrical equipment on Earth.

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