Three months before Russian forces illegally invaded their neighbor of Ukraine, the first shots of the war were fired in the quiet darkness of space.
At the end of November 2021, as the United States was readying to enjoy its Thanksgiving holiday, while U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts quietly slept onboard the International Space Station (ISS), a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon streaked into low-Earth orbit and destroyed a derelict Soviet-era satellite.
The blast scattered debris all around the Earth and threatened the safety of both the ISS and the people living onboard it. At the time, U.S. intelligence leaders were warning their NATO partners that the Russians were building up their forces along the Ukrainian border, possibly readying to invade the fledgling democracy.
Looking back on the fact that Russia ultimately did invade Ukraine shortly thereafter, it is likely that the Russian ASAT test was meant as a message from the Kremlin to the White House essentially saying, if the Americans wanted to keep its military (and possibly even its civil society) in working order, Washington would not meddle in Russia’s pending invasion of Ukraine. If Washington did dare to stymie the Russian advance into Ukraine, then Moscow would attack America’s vital-yet-vulnerably satellite constellations and deprive the United States of its ability to reliably project power across the globe.
Almost a year after those terrifying events in space, the Russo-Ukraine War rages. What Russian leaders believed would be a quick, sharp, and decisive victory over Ukraine has devolved into a brutal slog that, after Ukraine’s recent successful offensive against Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, may end in a defeat for Russia.
The reason that the Ukrainians have been so effective against the nuclear weapon state of Russia, outside of the obvious gallantry consistently displayed by Ukraine’s defenders, is the fact that Ukraine’s military has been generously supported by the United States and its NATO partners—even in the face of increased Russian threats against the West.
Many in Washington had refused to address concerns that American military support of Ukraine might lead to a direct conflict with the increasingly desperate Russians…until now. In a recent interview, President Joe Biden spent several minutes pleading with his Russian counterpart not to escalate his losing war in Ukraine by deploying tactical nuclear and/or chemical weapons of mass destruction there.
The reason Mr. Biden is now burbling about Russian escalation in the Russo-Ukraine War is likely because U.S. intelligence has concluded that, if Ukraine does manage to affect a strategic defeat of Russia’s military, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to simply call a truce and go home with a humiliating defeat in his pocket. This is especially true, given the deteriorating economic and political conditions within Russia.
As Russian forces in Ukraine struggle to mount an effective defense against the dynamic Ukrainian advance into territories Moscow believes their forces could never lose, the Russian people are becoming restless. Calls both within Russia and outside of the country are increasingly for Mr. Putin’s removal. Mr. Putin cannot afford to be seen as losing a war that he foolishly began. To do so would be to invite challenge to his rule. Rather than face that prospect, Mr. Putin is likely to wait a bit longer to see how his forces reconfigure their defenses in the face of Ukraine’s new offensive in Eastern Ukraine. Should Russian forces still prove unable to stunt the Ukrainian advance, then, Mr. Putin will escalate the war by taking the fight directly to Ukraine’s supporters in the West.
Mr. Biden is worried that Mr. Putin will use WMDs in Ukraine. For Mr. Putin to do this, though, he must first either entirely remove or severely degrade the Western capability to respond to such an act. Mr. Putin will also have to isolate Ukraine from the wider world, which he has thus far been unable to do. For Mr. Putin to have a chance at deploying WMDs against Ukraine, he will need to disable the American and NATO satellites that orbit the Earth. Russia would do this both to blind American surveillance as well as to disrupt America and NATO’s ability to militarily respond.
Potential targets of Russia’s space war would be surveillance satellite constellations, as well as strategic communications systems, the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) network, the Navy’s Multi User Objective System (MUOS), and even America’s critical nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) satellites in geosynchronous orbit—without which the entire U.S. nuclear weapons deterrent will be weakened if not totally broken (meaning any threat to Russia that an American nuclear retaliation poses Moscow will be removed from the Kremlin’s strategic calculus). With these critical systems destroyed, the entire U.S. military posture will collapse, at least for a time.
With the Americans and their NATO allies stymied by Russia’s aggressive Space Pearl Harbor, Moscow would likely then use WMDs against Ukrainian targets directly. Under the weathering attack, without America and NATO at the ready to backstop Ukraine, Mr. Putin just might eke out the victory his conventional forces have thus far struggled to achieve. While the Americans could still ultimately retaliate against Russia for such aggression, the fact is that the costs imposed upon the United States would be far more onerous than what most politicians, regardless of political party, would be willing to bear.
The Russians are fixated on their objective of capturing Ukraine; this goal has become the raison d’etre of the entire Putin regime. And the Americans and their allies are the only thing standing in the way of Mr. Putin achieving this end. Therefore, given how committed to winning the Ukraine war Mr. Putin is—and that his entire regime’s survival rests on winning this campaign—Mr. Putin just might opt to risk world war rather than surrender or sue for peace.
The Russo-Ukraine War is not over. Ukraine has fought well and Russia has not. Unfortunately, there are still some strategic cards that Russia could play that not only would give Moscow a window of opportunity to achieve its victory in Ukraine but that could also do grave damage to the United States and its allies…and push everyone into a third world war that few in the West are prepared to fight and win.
• Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst and author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) and of the forthcoming “The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy” (Republic Book Publishers) due out October 18. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.