Could Russia shoot down commercial satellites used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine? – Technology Org


Ukraine doesn’t own an extensive space program. In fact, Ukraine doesn’t even have military satellites or similar technology. Imaging ground objects from space is extremely useful in terms of reconnaissance, which is why Ukraine relies on commercial satellites to learn valuable information about the positions of the Russian forces in Ukraine. But could Russia legitimately shoot those commercial satellites down?

Crimean peninsula from space imaged by a satellite.

Crimean peninsula from space. Image credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center via Wikimedia

This ongoing Russian military invasion of Ukraine revealed many gray spots in international law regarding an armed conflict. War is war and war is chaotic. However, it cannot be too chaotic – we need some rules and laws to protect the civilian population and contain the conflict geographically so that it wouldn’t spread like a wildfire into a new world war.

The West is supplying arms to Ukraine. At what point do these Western countries become legitimate military targets for Russian missile attacks? How could Ukraine allies transfer fighter jets and other aircraft without making their own airfields legitimate military targets for Russia? And what about those commercial satellites?

Ukraine uses several different space-based technologies. SpaceX spacecraft provide Starlink, which ensures uninterrupted communications even at the front lines. Meanwhile, images from satellites owned by companies like Maxar provide information about the accumulation of Russian forces in the occupied areas of Ukraine.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, Ukraine managed to buy a satellite belonging to Finnish imaging company ICEYE, as well as access to its archive of images.

Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms control, already threatened to take down commercial satellites if they are used for military purposes by Ukraine. As Valius Venckūnas stressed on, Russia has been developing technology to destroy satellites in orbit for years.

The question is – can Russia destroy civilian satellites, which are owned by commercial entities in countries far away from Ukraine? On one hand, these satellites could be regarded as dual-use infrastructure, like the electrical grid, airports, and such.

Even though these spacecraft are made for imaging, they are employed by Ukraine for military reconnaissance – hence, dual use. However, they are now owned by Ukraine. In fact, some of the satellites used by Ukraine belong to companies from NATO members. An attack on them could constitute a harsh response from these countries, as they can consider ways to protect their space infrastructure.

We simply do not know exactly which scenario is more likely. Reciprocity is the name of the game when it comes to international relations. If Russia dared to attack satellites owned by other countries, its own satellites may become legitimate targets. It is a gray area in the fabric of the law of war and hopefully, it can be resolved with treaties and conventions rather than a violent precedent.


Sources: , Reuters , Wikipedia


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