Last week, US President Joe Biden’s administration briefed NATO members about the imminence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. This came after months of increasing tensions between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia over Crimea, the small peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea from Ukraine, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Shortly after these caustic US intelligence warnings to Europe, Russia test-fired an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that created such a large debris field in orbit that the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were forced to take refuge in the SpaceX capsule, in anticipation of having to abandon the station.
(As an aside, there were Russian cosmonauts on the ISS who were also forced to take refuge in the Soyuz capsule docked on the Russian side of the ISS.)
Western media reported the US intelligence community’s warning to NATO about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s testing of an ASAT that threatened the ISS as separate events. They are not separate.
The US government has been distracted by the absurdity of its domestic politics. Russian leaders have sensed weakness they seek to exploit. The US appears paralyzed by bad leadership and internal dissent. Now may be the time for Russia to strike hard against the West and rewrite the European regional order in its favor.
While Ukraine is not part of NATO, the United States and its European allies have consistently articulated their opposition to any further Russian military actions in Ukraine. Throughout former president Donald Trump’s administration, for example, the United States gave Ukraine’s besieged military much-needed lethal aid to assist in the defense of its territory from greater Russian aggression.
Various NATO countries have also helped Ukraine enhance its national defenses while Russia has intensified its commitment to expanding its threat to Ukraine.
Whether the West would risk direct military confrontation with Russia over a non-NATO member like Ukraine is another matter entirely. Given the constant declarations of support for Ukrainian sovereignty, though, Moscow cannot be certain that the Western alliance would not intervene if it decided to cleave away more of Ukraine.
Therefore, Moscow has likely initiated plans to neuter any potential threat of a NATO defense of Ukraine against any Russian invasion by going after sensitive American and NATO satellites.
The surprise Russian demonstration in orbit was probably an example of radical deterrence: Moscow is letting Washington, Brussels and London know just how far it is willing to go to achieve its strategic objectives in what it views as its “near abroad” (in this case, Ukraine).
The Kremlin is asking the West if it values the security and economic prosperity of Ukraine over its own security and prosperity. Moscow is likely banking on the West saying that, in fact, it does not put its own interests behind those of Ukraine (it doesn’t).
Washington is now in a strategic quandary: Failure to respond with at least an in-kind demonstration in orbit would lead Moscow’s leaders to conclude that they can have their way with Ukraine. This conclusion would lead to the inevitable annexation of more of Ukraine by Russia while reinforcing the claims of both Russia and China that the United States is a great power in terminal decline.
On the heels of the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, given how much moral and diplomatic capital the West has (stupidly) invested in Ukraine, the failure of Western powers to respond to this Russian provocation would lead to greater aggression directed against the West, not just in Europe but around the world – and in space.
The United States relies on satellites more than any other nation on Earth. Not only are satellites key for modern communications and economic transactions, but they are critical in modern military operations.
Satellites form the backbone for the most basic functions of America’s global military. Removing those key satellite interlinks would render the US military impotent, leaving America and its allies vulnerable to attack from a predatory power, such as Russia.
In space, the United States has more to lose than any other country – and the Kremlin knows this. That fact explains why Russia began a rapid military modernization in 2010 to reorganize its forces to better fight – and win – a space war against the United States.
To deter Russia, the US must immediately test its own ASAT capability while deploying swarms of smaller, “bodyguard” satellites designed to protect America’s sensitive satellites in Earth orbit from ASAT attack.
At the same time, Washington must clarify its position on Ukraine: Either it stands with the embattled country, or it does not. Strategic ambiguity, in this case, invites greater challenge from Moscow – which is most unwelcome currently.
Failure to draw red lines clearly will lead to a Russian strike on US satellites that might precipitate a war. Or worse, a US defeat.