5 min read
Russian ASATs and Invasions: What Does Recent Posturing Mean For the Possibility of War in Ukraine?

Henry Choisser

The general consensus among NATO intelligence, international media, and now even the Russian Foreign Ministry, is that a military invasion of Ukraine is very much on the table. There is a further consensus that the tipping point has yet to be reached - however an inflection will almost certainly occur if Moscow’s “red lines” are not taken to heart (namely, no provision of advanced long range weapons and a formal promise not to accede Ukraine into NATO). Thus far, the conversation among the Western powers has been far more concerned with trying to develop effective economic countermeasures to deter Putin from escalating the simmering 7 year conflict on Ukraine’s eastern border to an all out war, rather than de-escalation through diplomacy. This is dangerously narrow-minded given that the Kremlin has undoubtedly taken these factors into consideration while setting in place the means necessary to launch a full scale operation, which are projected to be achieved by early January. More importantly, the United States and the NATO Alliance seem to be blind to the sheer magnitude of the threat that their westward enlargement poses in the mind of Russian leaders and military planners. For such bellicose and costly options to seem viable for Moscow, which has yet to recover from the last round of sanctions, the dangers of Ukraine entering the Western sphere of influence and military apparatus must be understood as inherently existential. 

Putin has framed inaction on his part as “criminal” and stated that “Russia has a right to defend itself” in the face of “[NATO] building up its military potential at our borders.” One needs only look at the American response to the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago to understand what Putin might be willing to do to prevent U.S. missiles, artillery, and other advanced weaponry capable of offensive operations from being positioned within 300 miles of Moscow (a distance that makes missile launch-to-strike times a mere 3-5 minutes depending if they are hypersonic). 

Russia has always been leery of encirclement by its adversaries and exposure on its western flank, where everything from Napoleonic to Nazi armies have marched unimpeded across the Eurasian steppes straight to the doors of Moscow. For Ukraine, which is viewed within Russia as being historically, culturally, and linguistically intertwined with them, to become the tip of the enemy spear in any hypothetical conflict with the West is wholly untenable. And a number of very explicit measures have been taken to relay that conviction to European and American leaders. 

In this vein, I believe that the highly destructive test on Nov. 15th of a Direct Ascent-ASAT missile, known as the A-235 PL-19 Nudol was one such measure of determination. tThe test raises a number of questions in light of the fact that they have already demonstrated the existence and capabilities of these systems without destroying any existing satellites multiple times - first in November 2015, and a subsequent 5 times before last month’s test (including the testing of wing-mounted ASATs equipped on a MIG-31). The primary questions are: what posturing is achieved in the lead up to a troop surge near Ukraine, and why take the condemnation for debris fallout if Washington was already acutely aware of the system’s ability to neutralize a target? 

As we try to answer these questions, let's go over what we know. Last month, on November 15th Russia became the 4th country in the last 15 years to blow up one of its own defunct satellites, fuelling a space arms race that has heated up since 2007 when China conducted the first such destructive test, followed by the U.S. in 2008 and India in 2019. By hitting Cosmos-1408 with a kinetic direct ascent ASAT, Russia added over 1,500 new trackable pieces of debris to the existing 21,000 pieces of debris, which clog the ever more congested orbital environment, and an untold amount of smaller ones. Only debris larger than 4 inches in diameter can be tracked discreetly, yet anything larger than a half inch could punch a hole straight through the International Space Station. This is because when travelling at orbital velocities (which exceed 17,000mph), a 1 centimeter paint fleck is capable of inflicting the same damage") as a 550 pound object traveling 60 miles per hour on earth. Any debris smaller than 4 inches are estimated statistically, and number in the millions, all of which contribute to a possible irreversible cascade effect of piecemeal obliteration known as Kessler Syndrome").

In part, the test was meant to serve notice that just as American leaders are willing to take economic actions that were off the table back in 2014, Russia is willing to take military action beyond the scope of their 2014 incursions. The current brinkmanship taking place has been portrayed as a test of Western solidarity and commitment to Eastern European security, but let’s not underestimate the extent to which this test is also meant to gauge NATO’s intentions in the east. 

Putin has established redlines regarding Ukraine’s accession to NATO and their acquisition of advanced weapons that could be used offensively against Russia. This is because Putin fundamentally sees NATO as an aggressive anti-Russian military alliance that is ultimately bent on curbing Russian ambitions in its sphere of influence. Unfortunately, the recalcitrance of Washington to more formally acknowledge or empathize with the concerns of Moscow is only going to reinforce these perceptions. To illustrate, the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed that in last Tuesday’s call between Biden and Putin, the U.S. president “clearly and directly . . . made no such commitments or concessions” regarding excluding Ukraine from NATO despite the fact that other reporting indicates that the administration considers Ukrainian accession to be off the table for at least a decade. 

Yes, The U.S. has entrenched itself in the liberal ideal that Ukraine has the sovereign right to “freely determine who they associate with”. But must we unflinchingly espouse these values if their very proclamation will lead Ukraine closer to having its sovereignty stripped away by a Russian invasion? Should we do so even when we openly retract the possibility of American military intervention by U.S. personnel in the same breath? That’s bluffing with a bleeding hand, when you have satellite imagery showing your opponent has a full house...… 

To be fair to the Biden administration, some such measures that reduce our strategic ambiguity have been taken to prevent the likelihood of strategic miscalculations should a conflict truly break out. This gets back to the heart of the recent ASAT test, which probably played a role in the administration's decision to formally remove American forces from any strategic calculations being done by Russian military planners. Perhaps this indicates that there is an understanding of the extent to which Russia feels backed into a corner, and the rash decisions that such an adversary is more likely to make. 

One such decision might be to target military intelligence satellites in low earth and geosynchronous orbit on which modern U.S. net-centric warfare relies for the intelligence, communications, targeting, and guidance capabilities of our armed forces. For which reason they would be some of the first targets in any open military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. 

It should be noted that deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles (which were banned by the INF Treaty prior to 2019), as the deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov has threatened to do if U.S. missiles arrive in Europe, would not be a new phenomenon. Nuclear capable Iskander-M medium range missiles were deployed to Kaliningrad in 2013 - in contravention of the INF Treaty - during the months preceding the annexation of Crimea. As dire as the threat sounds, it should be seen as a final bid by Moscow to have its security concerns and red lines taken seriously, rather than an indication that any conflict would involve these systems. Foremost because their use would activate the U.S. security assurances provided to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which formed the basis of Ukrainian nuclear disarmament after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Ultimately, neither side wants this conflict, but Putin will be compelled to act if he does not feel that their concerns are taken seriously. The best illustration of this is the slow but steady ratcheting of pressure that Russia has embarked on, and the use of openly hostile rhetoric, when the Kremlin typically prefers ambiguity and plausible deniability. However, if no compromise can be made, Moscow will make new facts on the ground. One of the best indications that Putin has decided to march will be whether or not costly Russian reservists remain in active service two weeks from now. 

This is not the moment of "maximum leverage" as some analysts have claimed. No justifiable amount of preemptive pressure will dissuade Putin. In fact, it is only likely to harden his resolve and reinforce his perception that the West is untrustworthy and diplomacy a lost cause. As we careen towards the largest European conflict since world war two, the West must be honest with themselves that this is the last gasp for a diplomatic solution. 

In this vein, the U.S. must push Ukraine to make progress on its portions of the ceasefire and renormalization agreement known as Minsk II, which despite being repeatedly violated by both sides and highly unpopular among ultranationalists within Ukraine, represents the last best hope for detente. Additionally, the Biden administration should be more vocal about their internal position that Ukraine's accession is at least a decade away, and perhaps put that notion into writing, as Putin so fervently wants. Although concessions that may be viewed as appeasement may seem like a bad precedent and be unpopular domestically, the prospect of losing Ukraine to Russian aggression within 6 months of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is far worse, and leaves no room for any future negotiations. Moreover, they may be one of the only means left to avert an open conflict, because Ukraine represents the last significant buffer between NATO and Moscow, and preventing its conversion into a Western base of operations is something that Putin is willing to do at all costs - even those of economic catastrophe and a bloody invasion. However, if the tanks do roll on Kyiv, the U.S. has only taken intervention by boots on the ground off the table, and Washington must be willing to use the other vast tools in its military and economic arsenal to support Ukrainian forces in defense of their sovereignty. Otherwise, where do we draw the line against reemergent authoritarian expansionism?

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