US Accuses Russia of Nuclear Weapon Development, Putin Fires Back

National security officials and lawmakers are alarmed that Moscow appears to be developing a new capability for attacking satellites with the detonation of a nuclear warhead. According to people familiar with classified information, the threat could disrupt or turn off critical communications and intelligence systems, as well as other technologies in orbit around Earth.

The apparent move by Moscow has set off a frenzy in Washington since Wednesday, when Republican Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement warning of a “serious national security threat” that the panel had received classified intelligence on. The White House has declined to comment publicly on what the new information concerns, but a spokesman for the National Security Council said Thursday that an emerging Russian system would violate a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in orbit or outer space.

In the early years of the Cold War, after both countries leaped ahead in their nuclear arms race and developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, the West proposed a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons in space. The eventual result was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned putting any weapons of mass destruction into orbit or outer space. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that Washington believes Moscow is developing a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon whose detonation could disrupt everything from military communications to phone-based ride services, including the ability of GPS devices to pinpoint your location on Earth.

According to the people familiar with the intelligence, the US has long been aware of Russia’s efforts to develop such a weapon and had sought for decades to dissuade it from proceeding. They said the US and its allies are working to try to convince Moscow that the benefits of such a system would be outweighed by the costs, mainly because most commercial satellites operate in low-Earth orbit where they would likely survive an attack, while military ones are in higher orbits above the atmosphere where the damage from a nuclear explosion would be much more significant.

A detonation of a nuclear device in space could also cause electromagnetic interference that might harm other satellites, the sources said. The amount of interference that might happen would depend on the size of the warhead and the altitude at which it was exploded. It also depends on whether there is a shield around the warhead to limit the effect.

A Russian defense minister flatly denied the claim on Tuesday, saying that Moscow has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space and that it had only developed space capabilities for defensive purposes. The ministry added that the allegations were aimed at intimidating Congress and the White House into increasing funding for Ukraine following the escalation of tensions between the two sides over Russia’s February 2022 invasion of the country. The official added that the Kremlin was ready to discuss strategic stability.

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