Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution today that would have reaffirmed the provision in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibiting nations from placing nuclear weapons in Earth orbit. Recent reports that Russia may be planning to do just that surprised and worried many space-faring countries. Russian President Putin said publicly Russia has no intention of putting a nuclear weapon in orbit, but U.S. officials point out if that were true, Russia would not have vetoed the resolution.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaking to the U.N. Security Council, April 24, 2024. Screengrab.

The resolution was proposed by the United States and Japan along with more than 60 co-sponsors.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at the Security Council meeting that placing a nuclear weapon in space would have “grave consequences for the long term sustainability of outer space and Sustainable Development goals.”

“There should be no doubt: Placing a nuclear weapon into orbit would be unprecedented, unacceptable, and deeply dangerous.” — Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction from Earth orbit. The Soviet Union and the United States were among the original signatories to the treaty, which now has 115 signatories.

 

Indications that Russia might be considering placing a nuclear weapon in orbit emerged in February after Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, posted on X that the committee had information about a “serious national security threat” and urged President Biden to declassify the information so “Congress, the Administration, and our allies can openly discuss” necessary actions.

White House National Security Council Communications Advisor John Kirby confirmed Turner was talking about an antisatellite capability, but emphasized it was not an active threat. Later he added that if it were deployed it would violate the Outer Space Treaty.

Few military activities in outer space are prohibited by the OST, sparking concern that he was referring to a nuclear weapon.

As discussed by experts from the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, detonating a nuclear weapon in space is dangerous for anyone — countries and companies — with satellites in orbit. It’s also self-defeating since the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) destroys satellites indiscriminatley unless they are designed with special protections, including those from whoever exploded the weapon.

The effects of exploding a nuclear weapon in space were clearly demonstrated in 1962 when the United States conducted a high-altitude nuclear test called Starfish Prime. The resulting EMP was much larger than expected, not only disabling six satellites, but it “darkened streetlights over 1,400 km away in Hawaii and created artificial auroras.

Knowing the consequences, exploding a nuclear weapon in space seems so nonsensical that many have dismissed the notion that Russia has such plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that he does. But Russia’s veto today gives credence to the reports.

Crafted by the United States and Japan over several weeks and introduced in March, the resolution called on countries not to develop or deploy nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty and to agree on the need to verify compliance.

The vote was 13 in favor, one opposed (Russia), and one abstention (China).

After the vote, Thomas-Greenfield criticized Russia for undermining the nonproliferation regime and China for showing it “would rather defend Russia as its junior partner.”

Of course, this is not the first time Russia has undermined the global nonproliferation regime. Over the past few years, Russia has irresponsibly invoked dangerous nuclear rhetoric and walked away from several of its arms control obligations. It has remained unwilling to engage in substantive discussions around arms control or risk reduction. And it has defended and even enabled dangerous proliferators.

Now, Russia has vetoed a straightforward resolution that affirms a legally binding obligation under the Outer Space Treaty: that we should not be putting WMD into orbit.

And with its abstention from this vote – despite our multiple attempts to forge consensus – China has shown that it would rather defend Russia as its junior partner, than safeguard the global nonproliferation regime.

Colleagues, President Putin himself has said publicly that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space.

And so 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? It’s baffling. And it’s a shame.

This is not the outcome the United States wanted, and given the vote count, it is not the outcome the rest of this Council wanted, either. — Linda Thomas-Greenfield

The White House issued a statement explicitly stating that it “assesses that Russia is developing a new satellite carrying a nuclear device” and that if Russia really doesn’t plan to deploy nuclear weapons in space as Putin says, it would have not have issued a veto.

When the Starfish Prime test took place in 1962, very few satellites were in orbit and the world’s populace was not dependent on them. The situation is entirely different today, with satellites providing critical services like communications and navigation around the globe not only for national security, but civil society. Losing access to GPS, weather satellites, satellite Internet (e.g. Starlink), and myriad other satellite-based capabilities would have profound impacts.

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