Russia has agreed with Sierra Leone on the non-deployment of space weapons. Why?

  • Pavel Aksenov
  • BBC Russian Service

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Photographer, English MOD

Last week, Russia agreed with Sierra Leone not to be the first to put weapons in space, and before that it made similar agreements with Venezuela, Cambodia, Togo, Uruguay, Burundi and a dozen other countries that apparently have not yet begun space exploration.

For several years now, Russia has signed joint statements not to be the first to place weapons in space with countries that do not have large space programs – neither civilian nor military. In addition to African, Latin American and Asian countries, such statements have been signed, for example, with Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and others.

These statements are made for a reason, but as part of Russia’s No First Deployment of Weapons in Space (NPOF) initiative, which has been in place since 2004.

On the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these agreements are called “the highest form of intergovernmental transparency and mutual trust”, as well as “the most effective and truly working measure to prevent the withdrawal of weapons in space.”

How have agreements with countries that have not yet explored outer space proved to be the most effective measure to prevent weapons from getting there, and why does Russia need such a policy?

Why did the question of deploying weapons in space arise?

In 1967, a major international treaty on outer space was concluded. It prohibits the deployment of all types of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but it does not prescribe other types of weapons. This creates a legal loophole.

During space exploration, various countries launched a lot of devices that are not weapons of mass destruction, but work in the interest of the military. These are, for example, satellites for remote sensing of the Earth, equipped with various types of sensors, i.e. spy satellites. In addition, the military uses spacecraft for communication, target designation and geo-positioning.

Such satellites do not cause major claims from other countries – firstly, they do not pose a direct threat to any other units or missiles in orbit, and secondly, they are often used by both military and civilian services.

Russia fears that the United States, and possibly its allies, want to place strike systems in space that can attack ground and space targets. Similar concerns are felt in the Pentagon in relation to Russia and China. They also point to the fact that Moscow and Beijing are actively creating ground-based space weapons.

Have the US, China and Russia tried to negotiate?

In 2008, Russia and China submitted to the Conference on Disarmament a draft Treaty on the Prohibition of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT). In the authors’ opinion, it should become one of the basic agreements on a comprehensive ban on weapons in outer space.

The draft treaty has been criticized by Western countries, mainly the United States, who believe that it does not contain restrictions on aspects that are important to Moscow and Beijing. It was then completed in 2014, but even in its final form, it doesn’t fit Washington.

The treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of any kind in outer space and the use of force against space objects. It was submitted to the Conference on Disarmament for consideration, but so far Moscow and Beijing have been unable to organize a full-scale discussion on it.

Why does Russia need agreements with Asian and African countries in this case?

The NPO movement and joint declarations on the non-deployment of weapons in outer space with dozens of countries are an alternative to such a large treaty. Moscow is trying to get the support of as many countries as possible so that this process becomes as large-scale as possible.

Ideally, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, joining this initiative by all states would mean the adoption of a global political commitment not to place weapons in space, and the development of space attack weapons systems would be inappropriate.

“You can approach the legally binding option – the adoption of an appropriate agreement, or you can go step by step by introducing political obligations,” Andrey Malov, Associate Professor at the Department of International and National Security at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Academy of Foreign Affairs. Ministry, explained in an interview with the BBC.

“Water wears on rock, you see? So slowly push the world community’s understanding that this is indeed an extremely destabilizing moment if strike weapons are deployed in outer space,” he says.

On the other hand, Russia needs the NPOK to move towards a full-scale discussion of a major treaty on weapons in outer space – that is, it is not only an alternative to a major treaty, but also part of the path to such a treaty. legally binding agreement.

Why did the US not like the treaty proposed by Russia and China?

Wang Guoyu, deputy director of the Institute of Space Law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, writes in an article titled “Disadvantages of PPWR: Real or Imaginary” published on the PIR Center’s website in 2015 that the main complaint of the United States was that the draft treaty did not at all took into account ground-based anti-satellite systems, which are actively being developed by China and Russia.

China tested an anti-satellite missile in 2007 and shot down an old Feng Yun 1C meteorological satellite launched in 1999. This showed the level of Chinese technology in this field.

In Russia, the S-500 anti-aircraft missile system is being created, which, as Colonel General Sergei Surovkin, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, said in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda in July 2020, can also shoot down satellites.

“In terms of its performance characteristics, the S-500 can be attributed to the first generation of space defense systems, because in the future it will be able to destroy satellites and space weapons in low orbit. The characteristics included in the S-en -500 air defense system make it possible to destroy hypersonic weapons in addition to aerodynamic and ballistic targets of all modifications, including in near space,” said the commander-in-chief. Practical tests of this system against spacecraft have not yet been performed.

Photographer, Getty Images


One of the complaints against the draft PPWT treaty was the lack of restrictions on Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons.

The US also accuses Russia of developing and testing orbital anti-satellite weapons.

In July 2020, after the Russian inspector satellite Kosmos-2543 entered orbit, a small object separated from it in the direction of another Russian satellite.

The US Space Command calls it a “projectile,” but Russia claims it was some kind of “small spacecraft” testing another satellite in orbit.

This case in the United States is connected to another that occurred in 2017. Then, according to the Pentagon, the Russian device performed maneuvers near the American satellite.

The United States believes that in both cases Russia tested anti-satellite weapons and that this shows Russia’s true intentions in not deploying weapons in space.

“This event highlights Russia’s hypocritical support for arms control in space, through which Moscow seeks to limit US capabilities, while apparently having no intention of ending its own anti-satellite programs – ground-based and one that is apparently an orbital one. anti-satellite weapons ,” – Christopher Ford, Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, commented on the Cosmos-2543 incident this way.

Does Moscow have any claims on the US space program?

Moscow does not have a better opinion of Washington. Speaking at the 2019 Geneva Conference on Disarmament, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US was deliberately dragging out the negotiations while creating a space constellation.

“In the second decade, we hear only excuses, they say, that the development of a treaty is a long thing, it is too early to start negotiations before there is a real threat of launching weapons into space, and it is generally inappropriate to establish a legally binding ban on this matter. Meanwhile, funding has already been allocated in the United States for the creation of a space missile defense segment and the deployment of strike weapons in a near-Earth orbit … A real combat structure will be built, ready to clean up external at any time space from the orbital property of offending countries,” Kommersant quotes him as saying.

In recent years, the United States has indeed actively created space forces, but insists that this is being done in response to the actions of Russia and China.

Photographer, Mikhail Japaridze/TASS


Sergei Lavrov accused the US of creating a space structure “ready at any time to clean up outer space from the orbital properties of offending countries”

In June 2020, the United States Department of Defense released a space strategy, according to which the United States will secure an advantage in space, above all against China and Russia.

“China and Russia pose the greatest strategic threat due to the development, testing and deployment of anti-space systems, as well as their doctrine to use them during a conflict that will extend into space. China and Russia are militarizing space to reduce military effectiveness of the United States and its allies, restrictions on freedom of activity in space,” the strategy says.

Even before this strategy was adopted, the Space Force and the US Space Command were created in 2019.

First and foremost, the strategy reflects the recognition of outer space as a possible potential theater of military operations.

In total, the document contains four tasks: to guarantee the superiority of the United States in space; provide space-based support for national and joint operations in other areas – land, sea, air and cyberspace; establish a state of stability (through both permanent presence, deterrence and the creation of international standards and rules); improve communication with partners and allies, as well as between different authorities within the country.

However, the United States does not place strike systems in space, as two former high-ranking generals – former head of the US Strategic Command Kevin Chilton and former head of the Air Force Space Command William Shelton – wrote in a joint article on the Defensenews website, in the future it is necessary to create such weapons that can repel an attack in orbit.

“In military planning, it is reasonable to assume that our vital space infrastructure will be the target of attacks in future conflicts. To deter these attacks and, if necessary, repel them, the United States must develop and deploy both offensive and defensive systems that will have Russia to understand and China, that we will win all conflicts that flow into the space world,” the article says.

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