So what are the odds Putin’s war against Ukraine could become Star Wars? Last week Russian officials raised the possibility that Moscow may target commercial satellites providing support to Ukraine as legitimate targets for a retaliatory strikes.
Thanks for reading War and More ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy head of Russia’s delegation at a UN arms control panel, said the use of Western satellites to help Ukrainian forces on the battlefield was “an extremely dangerous trend,” adding “quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.”
Deputy Head of the Russian Delegation Mr. Konstantin Vorontsov
So we asked some experts on military matters and space activities if this threat is credible. Here is what we got back.
Is attacking civilian satellites in space legal? There are few international treaties that govern these types of operations in space. The Outer Space Treaty does not govern this area. The Law of Armed Conflict, which is not a law per se (but rather a collection of treaty agreements and commonly held customs which govern conduct by nations in war) provides the only real context by which to evaluate this threat. The principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality are germane in this area.
The principle of “military necessity” authorizes the use of force to accomplish a legitimate military mission. If a commercial satellite or network of satellites is indeed providing direct support to Ukraine’s military efforts, the Russians could argue that under this principle, it can target the satellite(s) to accomplish its military mission. This would be an extraordinary claim and one that would be controversial. Such an attack has no precedent.
The principles of distinction requires combatants to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, while the principle of proportionality is the concept that the anticipated loss of life and damage to property incidental to attacks must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained.
It is conceivable that Russia could make an argument that an attack on a commercial satellite providing direct satellite communications or imagery in support of Ukraine could meet these requirements.
How Practical is Such a Threat to Strike a Commercial Satellite? Because it is possible Russia could craft such a legal basis for an attack, does not mean such an attack could be feasible.