The United States warns its allies that Russia could put a nuclear weapon into orbit this year


US intelligence agencies have told their closest European allies that if Russia is going to put a nuclear weapon into orbit, it will probably do so this year, but that it could instead launch a harmless “dummy” warhead into orbit to leave the West with doubt. their capabilities.

The assessment came as U.S. intelligence officials conducted a series of hurried and classified briefings to their Asian and NATO allies, while details of the U.S. assessment of Russia’s intentions began to leak.

U.S. intelligence agencies are sharply divided in their opinion of what President Vladimir V. Putin is planning, and on Tuesday 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 for Ukraine.

During a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, Putin said Russia had always been “categorically against” placing nuclear weapons in space and had respected the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the weaponization of space. , including the placement of nuclear weapons. Weapons in orbit.

“We not only ask for compliance with the existing agreements we have in this area,” he said, according to Russian state media, “but we have proposed many times to strengthen these joint efforts.”

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

Putin has made no secret of his interest in upgrading Cold War-era Russian delivery systems, such as the bomber, which can reach the United States and is designed to carry two dozen nuclear weapons. And he has announced a fleet of new weapons (some still in development), including the unmanned Poseidon nuclear torpedo, which was designed to cross the Pacific, without human control, to explode off the west coast of the United States. (Russia has been less transparent about the accidents that have 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 attack cities or military sites, or any place on Earth. Instead, it would be nested 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 remaking global communications capabilities. It was Ukraine’s ability to connect its government, its military and its leadership via Starlink that played a critical role in the country’s survival in the first months after the Russian invasion, two years ago this week.

According to two senior officials briefed on the intelligence assessment that the United States has provided to its allies, American officials have said that Putin may believe that the mere threat of massive disruption (even if that meant blowing up Russia’s own satellites) could give his nuclear arsenal a new kind of deterrence. .

If the Tu-160 bomber that Putin boarded on Wednesday ever dropped its bombs on the United States or a NATO nation, retaliation would likely be swift. But American analysts have told their counterparts that Putin may believe that the old Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” would not apply in space: No one would risk a war by blowing up satellites, especially if there were no Humans. victims.

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

Now those agencies are divided in their assessment of what comes next. Some believe that Putin could launch a “dummy” weapon, but they do not make clear whether it was fake or real, making the answer even more difficult.

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

Shoigu, the defense chief, said Tuesday that Russia was not violating the 1967 treaty, but stopped short of discussing plans. “We have no nuclear weapons deployed in space, no nuclear weapons elements used in satellites, no fields created to prevent satellites from functioning effectively,” he said, according to Russian media reports.

“We don’t have any of that, and they know we don’t have it, but they’re still making noise,” he continued, in the meeting with Putin. “The reason why the West is making this noise consists of two things: first, to scare senators and congressmen, to supposedly extract funds not only for Ukraine, but also to counter Russia and subject it to strategic defeat.”

“And second, in our opinion, they would like to pressure us so clumsily to restart a dialogue on strategic stability,” he said, referring to talks that took place briefly before the invasion of Ukraine on the idea of ​​a successor to the new START treaty. which limits the amount of general weapons the United States and Russia can deploy. The treaty expires in two years.

Those discussions also delved into new types of weapons and new technologies, including artificial intelligence, that could pose new nuclear threats. But the talks ended with the invasion of Ukraine and were never resumed.

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