Russia Threatens Starlink Satellites

As the invasion of Ukraine continues, Russia threatened to shoot down Starlink satellites. It accuses the U.S. military of using them.

A Russian delegation made the remarks in a statement on record at the United Nations General Assembly. It accused the United States of allowing privately owned satellites to crowd Earth orbit. It says these satellites could be used against Russia. It called for the UN to condemn what it called “the provocative use of civilian satellites.”

The UN, of which the United States and European Union nations are important members, showed little interest in censoring Starlink or anyone who might use it. Both the United States and Europe continue to support Ukraine.

SpaceX provided Starlink terminals to Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion began. It has since beefed up Starlink’s ability to resist jamming, though it refused to block Russian propaganda websites.

The U.S. Pentagon praised Starlink’s ability to resist attacks on its ability to provide communications. SpaceX may not have ruled out the possibility that the U.S. military could become one of many customers, but has not confirmed whether it already is or not.

Pundits like The Economist’s Shashank Joshi recognized Russia’s statement as a veiled threat against Starlink, which demonstrated its ability to function when other forms of communication might have been knocked out. Joshi called it an important part of Ukraine’s communications in its defense against the Russian invasion.

Russia demonstrated its ability to destroy satellites in orbit with an anti-satellite missile test that sprayed debris into orbits occupied by critical hardware owned by other countries. China conducted a similar test in 2007. Debris from both tests are probably still floating around.

The US Space Command says the International Space Station crew was forced to shelter in their return vehicles due to a nearby debris cloud that may have been a result of the Chinese test. The US State Department called the anti-satellite test “irresponsible behavior.”

Elon Musk previously considered the possibility of Russian retaliation, saying that “we can launch satellites faster than they can launch anti-satellites missiles.” SpaceX launches new batches of Starlink satellites as often as once every two weeks.

Before his removal as the chief of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin threatened Elon Musk over his support of Ukraine. From Elon Musk’s response to the threats, he seemed to think Rogozin was throwing around the word “Nazi” too lightly.

That wasn’t the first time Rogozin spouted bluster about Elon Musk, SpaceX, and NASA. He previously threatened to pull Roscosmos out of the International Space Station in response to sanctions against Russia and referred to American spacecraft like the SpaceX Crew Dragon as “broomsticks.” He also taunted NASA in 2014, saying that perhaps it could get its astronauts to the International Space Station on a trampoline.

Elon Musk, of course, had something to say about it in a 2014 tweet:

So Elon Musk may not be very concerned about threats from Russian officials or even about the slim chance that the UN will take Russia’s demands very seriously. UN officials from the United States and Europe may recognize it as just more bluster from a country that is starting to get pushed back to its border by Ukrainian forces. Russia’s insistence that the UN should condemn Starlink-like constellations is likely to go nowhere.