Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a televised address
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a televised address in Moscow. Russia says it has no plans to deploy nuclear weapons in space Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press Office/AFP

Washington: The US has told allies that Russia could deploy a nuclear weapon or a mock warhead into space as early as this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Russia is developing a space-based capability to knock out satellites using a nuclear weapon, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity. A nuclear warhead in orbit would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which Russia is a signatory.

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The development comes after the House Intelligence Committee chairman warned last week of a grave but unspecified security threat from Russia. President Joe Biden later said that the Kremlin has been developing an anti-satellite space weapon that doesn't pose a direct threat to human lives.

White House spokespeople declined to comment.

"We have always been categorically against and are now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space," Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday at a televised meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. "We are doing in space only what other countries have, including the United States."

The Kremlin's alleged ambition underscores what security experts and Washington say is growing competition among the US, Russia and China to develop attack capabilities in orbit. The new space race stands in contrast with the Cold War, when the two superpowers negotiated a series of arms control agreements designed to prevent the weaponisation of space.

The current assessment is that Russia doesn't plan to detonate any orbital weapon, according to the people. However, there is risk of an accident and a nuclear explosion could potentially affect about a third of satellites and play havoc with communications systems on earth, they said.

The impact of any explosion would depend on the size of the warhead and the effects wouldn't necessarily mean the destruction of satellites but could mean disruptions that require error corrections, according to a person familiar with space weapons.

As of last April, there were nearly 7,800 operational satellites in Earth's orbit, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Russia has repeatedly resorted to nuclear saber-rattling as its forces have faltered since invading Ukraine two years ago. Putin suspended his country's observation of the New START treaty in 2023, the last accord limiting the size of nuclear arsenals in the US and Russia.

The US and its allies are working to dissuade Russia from deploying the capability, especially through engagement via China and India, which are seen as having more influence in Moscow, said the people. The New York Times previously reported some of those outreach efforts.

Politico reported on Thursday that senior intelligence and administration officials had attempted to reach out to Moscow to convince it to stop the project for weeks before it became public.

Another factor that would determine potential fallout is the altitude at which any explosion occurred. Most commercial satellites are in low-earth orbit, less than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the surface.

Experts previously told Bloomberg that the damage from a nuclear weapon exploding in low-earth orbit could fry satellites for hundreds of miles and that the resulting radiation could cause cumulative harm to satellites passing through the affected region for months. The electronics on spacecraft would also risk failure as a result of the blast.

The issue could be discussed by Group of Seven foreign ministers when they meet in Italy in April, the people said.