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Russia threatens to shoot down Western satellites

Russia could shoot down Western commercial satellites should they be used to assist Ukraine in the war, a Russian Foreign Ministry official was reported as saying on Monday.

Quasi-civilian Western satellites could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike, Vladimir Ermakov, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, said, according to state news agency Tass, citing an interview with Russian journalists.

Ermakov didn’t state which companies have assisted Ukraine in the war via satellite technology. In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk‘s SpaceX deployed its Starlink satellites to help provide Kyiv with internet service.

American satellite operators including Maxar Technologies Inc. and Planet Labs PBC are also contracted to provide services to various U.S. national-security agencies, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Musk has said that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet system provides Ukraine with a “major battlefield advantage.”

Newsweek has contacted SpaceX for comment via email.

“We have consistently drawn the attention of the international community to this dangerous trend, which goes beyond the harmless use of space technology, clearly manifested during the events in Ukraine,” Ermakov said.

“Obviously, the United States and its allies are not fully aware that such activities actually constitute indirect participation in armed conflicts.”

Newsweek has contacted Russia’s Foreign Ministry via email for comment.

Ermakov was echoing similar threats made by Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Department, in October 2022.

Vorontsov said at the time that the use of “commercial, infrastructure elements in outer space for military purposes” by the West constitutes an “extremely dangerous trend.”

“These States do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect participation in military conflicts,” he added. “Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

The official told a U.N. meeting in September 2022 that Russia had reiterated its concern “about the realization of policies aimed at the placement of weapons in outer space and the use of outer space for military purposes by the group of UN Member-States in order to ensure their superiority and supremacy.”

At the time, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. would “continue to pursue all means to expose, deter and hold Russia accountable for any such attack should that occur.”

Musk’s company has so far privately funded a network of nearly 4,000 satellites to be launched into low-Earth orbit. Ukrainian troops use Starlink for battlefield communications in the war with Russia.

In February, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said the company was preventing Kyiv from using the network to control drones in the region, saying the service was “never meant to be weaponized.”

Musk has also refused to allow Ukraine to use Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, to avoid complicity in a “major act of war,” he said.

“There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” he wrote in early September on X, formerly Twitter. “The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

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