Thursday, April 25

US warns allies Russia could put nuclear weapon into orbit this year

US intelligence agencies have told their closest European allies that if Russia wanted to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, it would likely do so this year – but that it could instead launch a harmless “dummy” warhead into orbit to let the The West in doubt. his abilities.

The assessment comes as U.S. intelligence officials conduct a series of rushed and classified briefings for their NATO and Asian allies, as details of the U.S. assessment of Russia’s intentions begin to emerge.

U.S. intelligence agencies are sharply divided over President Vladimir V. Putin’s plans. On Tuesday, Mr. Putin rejected the accusation that he intended to place a nuclear weapon in orbit and his defense minister said the intelligence warning was fabricated in an effort to get Congress to authorize more aid to Ukraine.

In a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, Putin said Russia has always been “categorically opposed” to the deployment of nuclear weapons in space and has respected the Treaty Outer Space Act of 1967, which prohibits the weaponization of space, including the placement of nuclear weapons. weapons in orbit.

“We not only call for respect for the existing agreements we have in this area,” he said according to Russian state media, “but we have repeatedly proposed strengthening these joint efforts.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin reinforced the central role he believes Russia’s nuclear arsenal plays in the country’s defense: visiting an aviation factory, he climbed into the bomb bay of a Tu-160M ​​strategic bomber , the most modern in the Russian fleet.

Mr. Putin has made no secret of his interest in modernizing Russia’s Cold War-era delivery systems, such as the bomber, which can reach the United States and is designed to carry two dozen nuclear weapons. And he announced a fleet of new weapons – some still in development – ​​including the unmanned nuclear torpedo Poseidon, designed to cross the Pacific, without human control, to detonate on the west coast of the United States. (Russia has been less transparent about the accidents that accompanied testing of these new weapons.)

But a space weapon would be different. Unlike the rest of the Russian or American arsenals, it would not be designed to strike cities or military sites, or any place on Earth. Instead, it would be nestled inside a satellite, capable of destroying swarms of commercial and military satellites circling alongside it in low Earth orbit, including those like Starlink that are rebuilding the world’s communications capabilities. It was Ukraine’s ability to connect its government, military and leaders around Starlink that played a crucial role in the country’s survival in the early months after the Russian invasion two years ago this week.

According to two senior officials briefed on the intelligence assessment the United States provided to its allies, American officials said Mr. Putin might believe that the mere threat of massive disruption — even if it meant detonating Russia’s own satellites – could strengthen its nuclear program. arsenal with a new type of deterrent. Bloomberg reported earlier that allies had been informed that a launch could take place this year.

If the Tu-160 bomber Mr. Putin boarded on Wednesday dropped its bombs on the United States or a NATO country, retaliation would most likely be swift. But Mr. Putin, American analysts told their counterparts, might believe that the old Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” would not apply in space: no one would risk a war to blow up satellites. , especially if there were no humans. victims.

But US officials admit they have little confidence in their own analysis of whether Mr Putin is actually ready to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit. They concluded that Russia tested such a system in early 2022, around the time Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. But it took some time for U.S. intelligence agencies to determine that the test was a practical attempt to put a nuclear weapon into orbit.

Today, these agencies are divided in their assessment of what might come next. Some believe Mr. Putin may have launched a “dummy” weapon, but do not specify whether it was fake or real – making it all the more difficult to answer.

But concern in Washington is great enough that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken warned his Chinese and Indian counterparts last weekend that if a nuclear weapon were detonated in low-Earth orbit, it would wipe out their satellites as well. He urged them to use their influence with Mr. Putin to prevent the weapon from ever being deployed.

Mr. Shoigu, the defense chief, said Tuesday that Russia was not violating the 1967 treaty, but he did not talk about plans. “We do not have nuclear weapons deployed in space, nor nuclear weapon components used on satellites, nor fields created to prevent satellites from operating effectively,” he said, according to Russian media.

“We don’t have any of this, and they know it, but they continue to make noise,” he continued during the meeting with Mr. Putin. “The reason the West is making this noise is two things: first, to scare senators and congressmen, to extract funds supposedly not only for Ukraine, but also to counter Russia and submit to strategic defeat.”

“And secondly, in our opinion, they would like to so clumsily push us to restart a dialogue on strategic stability,” he said, referring to talks briefly underway before Ukraine’s invasion to find a successor to the New START Treaty. which limits the total number of weapons the United States and Russia can deploy. The treaty expires in two years.

These discussions also focused on new types of weapons and new technologies, including artificial intelligence, which could pose new nuclear threats. But the negotiations ended with the invasion of Ukraine and were never summarized.