Mira Ricardel

Commercial Satellites at Risk in Russia-Ukraine Conflict

What Happened

While many analysts were assessing the odds of Putin deciding to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Ministry officials shifted the focus from the land war to space, stating that commercial satellites could be “legitimate” targets for retaliatory attacks.

Why it Matters

The United States, its friends, and allies have become progressively more dependent on space-based capabilities not only for defense, but for navigation, financial and communications networks, as well. At the same time, Russia has invested substantially in anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities and conducted an ASAT attack in 2021 “ just months before invading Ukraine. At the onset of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, a cyber attack since attributed to Russia, targeted Viasat, a commercial satellite company, affecting communications not only in Ukraine but also other parts of Europe. The more recent deployment of the commercial Starlink platform that provides satellite-based internet services to Ukraine has provided a critical capability for both defending forces and civilians. To date, Starlink has not received U.S. government funding for providing its services.

Potential Impacts

Given recent battlefield losses, the Russia’s focus in Ukraine has shifted significantly towards attacking civilian populations and infrastructure to advance its objective of driving the Zelensky government toward capitulation. The vital role that Starlink is playing in Ukraine means that Starlink satellites appear to be an increasingly attractive Russian target – especially as these are not U.S. government or NATO assets and thus, if attacked, are unlikely to trigger a NATO decision to invoke Article 5. Putin could escalate with an ASAT ‘test” that causes disruptive debris in low-earth orbit (LEO) or an overt attack that destroys Starlink satellites – with the assumption that there is a lower risk of either U.S. or NATO retaliation. Policy makers would have to consider their options in response.

Bottom Line

Commercial satellites are playing a growing and important role in providing effective communications networks, in addition to delivering other essential functions. The U.S. government must continue to develop means to defend its own satellites against malicious acts, contend with space debris, as well as adjust policies to account for the expanded role commercial satellites are playing in our and other global economies. Space is no longer the sole domain of governments, yet it is an increasingly contested and complex domain requiring concentrated attention and dedicated resources.

The Hon. Mira Ricardel leads the Geopolitical and Regulatory Risk practice at The Chertoff Group. Contact info@chertoffgroup.com for more information. 

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