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Russia says private satellites could become 'legitimate target' during wartime

An illustration of a Starlink satellite in orbit above the Earth.
An illustration of a Starlink satellite in orbit above the Earth. (Image credit: Mark Garlick/Getty Images)

Russia continues its trend of making provocative statements about the international order in space.

As the United States continues to leverage more commercial satellites for intelligence and communications work, Russia has issued a warning that these may become a "legitimate target" for wartime operations. 

That's according to statements made by a Russian delegation on Monday (Sept. 12) at a meeting of the United Nations' open-ended working group (OEWG) on reducing space threats, which is being held in Geneva from Sept. 12 to Sept. 16. The purpose of the working group meeting is to discuss how to reduce threats and increase cooperation in space through the creation and adoption of new norms and principles of responsible behavior. 

Related: War in Ukraine highlights the growing strategic importance of private satellite companies

The remarks were made by Konstantin Vorontsov, a member of the Russian Foreign Ministry and head of Russia's delegation to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. In a statement (opens in new tab) delivered Monday (Sept. 12), Vorontsov stated that the Russian delegation "would like to underline an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the events in Ukraine." 

Vorontsov said that the uses of commercial and civilian satellite assets by the United States and its allies throughout the ongoing invasion of Ukraine "constitute indirect involvement in military conflicts" whether they realize it or not and that so-called "quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation."

"At the very least," the statement continues, "this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which provides for the exclusively peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community."

Russia's comments about targeting commercial assets in space come after its ongoing invasion of Ukraine prompted Elon Musk's SpaceX to send multiple shipments of Starlink terminals to Ukraine to boost internet coverage and connectivity following Russian attacks on critical infrastructure. In addition to Starlink, commercial satellite imagery firms such as Planet, Maxar and BlackSky have been providing crucial intelligence by taking pictures of the conflict from above and sharing them openly, playing an unexpectedly important role throughout the Russian invasion.

Maxar Technologies' WorldView-3 satellite captured this image of burning apartment buildings in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 22, 2022.  (Image credit: 2022 Maxar Technologies)
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The Russian delegation's statement goes on to warn the United Nations against the adoption of "fragmented, non-inclusive rules for regulating space activities, that do not take into account approaches of all UN Member States and seek to ensure space dominance of a small group of states." Instead, Russia argues that United Nation member states should "focus on assuming national and international obligations to not place weapons of any kind in outer space (including in orbit around the Earth and on celestial bodies) and prohibit the threat or use of force against or with space objects, as well as introduce a complete and comprehensive ban on strike weapons in outer space for use against space objects." 

Russia's statement at the UN OEWG on space threats come just one day after two more nations, Germany and Japan, pledged not to conduct destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, joining a chorus of countries including the United States, Canada, and New Zealand that have committed to reducing space debris following a November 2021 Russian test that drew widespread international condemnation

Russia has yet to make such a pledge. 

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Brett Tingley
Editor, Space.com

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett has English degrees from Clemson University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.