Russia has a long history of prioritizing space power and today, more than ever, Russia’s emphasis on national security space activity is growing. The world should take note of Russia’s quietly growing capabilities and develop strategies for how to protect space for the benefits and in the interests of all countries. The response to Russia’s current behavior should be informed by an understanding of their past behavior and current motivations and potential vulnerabilities.
Russian Space Industry: an evolving sector
It is true that, overall, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia mainly focused on its public space sector. In that sector, their conscious decision to not cultivate competitive, private space companies resulted in stagnation and Russia's commercial space enterprise is now in systemic crisis and faces yet another generation of stagnation.
Russia’s national security space sector, however, is the one area of continued growth. Russia’s focus on space power is not new. In the 1960s both the United States and Russia developed military space platforms and even anti-satellite concepts and prototypes. Over the subsequent decades both superpowers developed and even tested more advanced space weapons. For example, some accounts claim that Russia developed a system to attack platforms on orbit associated with President Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Whether or not Russia in fact designed and launched an ASAT system at the time, Russia found the concept of attacks from space threatening. Gorbachev described SDI technology as "space strike" weapons and said the Soviet response to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would be "asymmetrical" and that SDI was "destabilizing.” This mindset continues to be reflected in Russia’s thinking about space today.
Space: a Military playground
Russia’s current military doctrine (published in 2014) lists a variety of military risks, including the “implementation of the global strike concept” and the “intention to place weapons in outer space.” The same doctrine states one of the main tasks of the Russian military is to “resist attempts by some states or group of states to achieve military superiority through the deployment of strategic missile defense systems, the placement of weapons in outer space or the deployment of strategic non-nuclear high-precision weapon systems.” Beyond the official military doctrine, multiple sources indicate that Russia views space as a warfighting domain and that establishing space supremacy will be a decisive factor in winning future conflicts.
Evidence also clearly indicates that Russia is doing more than just making policy and doctrine statements and is actively developing and testing an array of space weapons. Most recently, the U.S. and United Kingdom publicly criticized Russia for testing an anti-satellite weapon. Less often discussed publicly is the recent history of Russia’s development and testing of other space weapons. One example is the “Peresvet”-- a Russian system that reportedly includes a mobile laser system to dazzle enemy satellites. Various U.S. government reports claim a much wider array of “adversary” systems either under development or in service. One 2019 report from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center claimed: Potential adversaries are developing and proliferating a variety of weapons that could disrupt or deny civil and military space services. Although many of these weapons are intended to degrade space services temporarily, others can damage or destroy satellites permanently. A 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency report goes further, describing Russian counterspace systems in various stages of development, claiming “over the last two decades, Moscow has been developing a suite of counterspace weapons capabilities” including, electronic warfare systems, directed energy weapons, cyberspace threats, on-orbit threats and ground-based kinetic energy threats.
National Security Space: different perspectives
There is clearly a serious threat of growing Russian space weapons capability, but the West would do well to not mirror image Russian space strategy against their own. Russia’s approach to national security space is different than that of the U.S. in several significant ways. Most analysts will highlight that Russia is much less dependent on space than the U.S. in times of military conflict. This makes Russia less concerned about the potential adverse impacts of orbital debris on the space domain. Russia’s recognition that space is more important to the U.S. creates potential opportunities and greater motivation for Russia to pursue space weapons designed to attack U.S. systems. Russia’s history and extensive experience with electronic warfare, directed energy weapons and rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) make the possibility of highly effective Russian counterspace weapons tangible rather than aspirational.
Despite the clear indications that Russia is pursuing their own space weapons their military tasks include efforts “to promote the conclusion of an international treaty on prevention of placement of any types of weapons in outer space.” Their active efforts to establish a ban on space weapons, in conjunction with the Chinese, has been underway since at least 2008 as demonstrated by their dual-sponsorship of a draft treaty titled “Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” (PPWT) at the Conference on Disarmament (CD). As recently as November 2020, reporting indicated Russia and China will once again sponsor two draft resolutions: “No first placement of weapons in outer space” and “Transparency and confidence building measures in space activities.” Many analysts assess this is a two-pronged approach to counter U.S. interests by attempting to restrict space weapons, including space-based missile defense systems, while simultaneously hedging by developing their own weapons.
While a space weapons ban is unlikely and certainly not supported by the U.S. and others, the U.S. could do less to increase Russia’s concern with space-based weapons. For example, public statements, like ones in the 2019 Missile Defense Review, that the U.S. will investigate space-based interceptors for missile defense are likely to reinforce Russia’s concern that U.S. actions will degrade strategic stability, much as it did with the Soviet Union’s reaction to SDI discussions in the 1980s. In lieu of a space weapons ban the U.S. and the West should emphasize transparent confidence-building measures and pursue ways to better attribute Russian space activity and establish widely shared norms to hold them accountable. Russia’s own doctrine calls for emphasis on greater Space Situational Awareness, including an international cooperation mechanism in that area. SSA coordination provides a reasonable starting point that serves global security interests and supports Russian priorities. The West has started talking more about space norms and responsible space behavior in the last few years but there has not been any tangible progress. This has allowed Russia to correctly claim that their recent ASAT tests do not violate any existing space treaties or agreements.
In addition to an emphasis on responsible space behavior and norms the U.S. and the West should accelerate their efforts to form coalitions of like-minded space partners. With the obvious and important exception of China, Russia has a shrinking pool of nations that support or depend on Russia’s space enterprise. This means that Russia’s economic influence is diminishing but also that their diplomatic influence is waning. The West could do worse than form stronger space coalitions and either invite or cajole likely outliers like Russia and China to join in the discussion. The challenge is developing standards for responsible behavior that apply to all and do not foreclose the likely desire of all major space powers to be able to protect their interests and space capabilities.
In summary, Russia’s space strategy has been relatively consistent over the decades—develop capabilities to protect Russian interests and feign innocence or, at most, state that their behavior is catalyzed by U.S. actions. The recent overt testing of a variety of counter space capabilities warrants a response, but a nuanced one. The West should carefully pursue a strategy that avoids an unintended arms race in space while preserving its own interests and, ideally, leverage Russia’s vulnerabilities, interests and need for international legitimacy. The challenge of this task is evident in the balance required for both sides’ interests.