White House confirms that Russia has a new anti-satellite weapon that is ‘troubling’ but not ‘active’

Washington downplays the threat: ‘We’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth’

White House John Kirby
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby at a press conference this Wednesday.KEVIN LAMARQUE (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Forty years after the “Star Wars program,” the alleged development of space weaponry with which the Ronald Reagan administration (1981-1989) aimed to force Moscow into excessive defense spending, leading to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia now has a novel “anti-satellite weapon system.” The White House confirmed it this Thursday, a day after the House Intelligence Committee warned of a “serious national security threat.” The presidential office tried to downplay the significance of the project, which was leaked at a time when Washington is engaged in a profound debate about where it should direct its foreign policy: whether it should maintain a global perspective or whether, as former president Donald Trump believes, it should make a shift towards isolationism.

The alert concerns a Russian anti-satellite weapon system, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby confirmed this afternoon in a press conference in which he did not allude to the new weapon being nuclear, as some U.S. media had suggested. Kirby called on the public to remain calm: though the Russian device is “troublesome,” he acknowledged, it is not “active” and “there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety.” “We’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth,” he said.

“We take the threat very seriously,” he added, assuring that President Joe Biden has been briefed on the matter. Biden has ordered a series of steps, including briefings in Congress and diplomatic contacts “with Russia and with our partners and allies, as well as with other countries.”

The existence of the Russian plans is something that the U.S. intelligence services had been following closely for months, according to Kirby, and that had recently been communicated to several congresspeople specialized in the intelligence area. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan had called a meeting this Thursday with the so-called “group of eight,” the highest-ranking legislators for intelligence matters in both chambers, to address the weapon — an indication of the rapid advances of Russian military technology on the war fronts of the future: space, artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons.

The Russian project is a nuclear system that could destroy civilian communications, spy and surveillance, and military coordination and control satellites of both the United States and its allies from space, The New York Times reported. At the moment, the United States does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites, a former official told The New York Times.

The alert was raised on Wednesday, when the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Congressman Mike Turner, issued a cryptic statement warning of a “serious threat to U.S. national security” and calling for the declassification of all related information, so that “the actions necessary to respond to this threat” can be discussed. On Monday, the committee had approved almost unanimously to disclose the data it had to the rest of the legislators.

Turner’s warning caused deep discomfort in the White House, where officials worry that declassifying such information would jeopardize valuable intelligence sources. Sullivan, who on Wednesday appeared before the media to discuss another issue, aid to Ukraine, expressed his surprise at the Republican’s move.

Turner has justified his decision by assuring that “the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence worked in consultation with the Biden Administration to notify Congress of this national security threat” and that the White House agreed that it was a “serious” matter.

But his press release came at a particularly sensitive time in Congress and in U.S. foreign policy. The Senate this week passed a bill allocating $95 billion for national security, including $60.1 billion for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel, after four months of negotiations. The measure has now passed on to the House of Representatives, where its future is uncertain. Though a majority formed by the Democratic caucus and moderate Republican lawmakers support aid to the invaded country, a growing part of the Republican conference rejects it, aligning itself with Trump, the foreseeable Republican candidate in the November presidential elections. The Speaker of the House, Republican Mike Johnson, does not intend to bring the bill to a floor vote.

The dispute over aid to Ukraine encapsulates a much broader debate, which erupted during Trump’s term in office and seemed to have been resolved in the early years of Joe Biden’s term: what is the role of the United States in the world and how should it respond to the threat posed by rivals such as Russia, China or other authoritarian countries. The former Republican president, who during his term practiced, or threatened to practice, an isolationist policy, made it clear last weekend that his position has not changed. In declarations that have now been heard around the world — and caused concern among NATO’s European partners — he indicated his willingness to let Russia “do whatever the hell it wants” with members that do not invest 2% of their GDP in defense. He has also declared himself against any foreign aid that does not come in the form of loans.

In contrast, President Joe Biden called Trump’s statements “un-American” and “dangerous.” The Democrat defends the global involvement of the United States as necessary for the national security of the world’s leading economy. And part of that involvement involves maintaining economic and military aid to Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.

In this context, several Republican congressmen have called on Johnson to open an investigation into Turner’s decision to issue a public alert.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government attributed the alert to Washington’s interest in approving aid to Ukraine. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “It’s obvious that Washington is trying to force Congress to vote on the aid bill by hook or by crook.”

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