States Should Affirm Support for Outer Space Treaty Despite Russian Veto

For Immediate Release: Apr. 24, 2024

Media Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Xiaodon Liang, Senior Policy Analyst, (202) 463-8270 ext. 103

(Washington, D.C.)—Today, the Russian Federation vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution reiterating support for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, reigniting concerns that Moscow is developing a space-based nuclear anti-satellite capability. The vote was 13 in favor, 1 opposed (Russia), with 1 abstention (China).

The resolution, originally advanced by the United States and Japan, would have reaffirmed support for the principles of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in outer space – whether on celestial bodies or in orbit. Notably, the Security Council resolution did not single out Russia for its suspected activities in outer space.

In attempting to justify its veto, Russia complained that council members had voted down an amendment to incorporate an alternative diplomatic initiative: a new prohibition on the placement of any weapons in outer space. 

“Russia’s reasoning doesn’t hold water. The resolution in support of the Outer Space Treaty is fully compatible with Russia’s alternative approach,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

In February, the United States made public an intelligence finding that Russia is developing an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

“Although Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on February 20 that his country has ‘always been categorically against, and are now against, the placement of nuclear weapons in space,’ today’s veto calls into serious question Russia’ commitment to this important norm governing use of the global commons,” said Kimball.

“Just as the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons or the resumption of nuclear testing must be considered inadmissible, the deployment of nuclear weapons in space should be seen as an unacceptable and provocative threat to international peace and security,” he added.

A nuclear detonation in space would create an indiscriminate zone of destruction, disabling not only military but also civilian satellites. The blast wave, radiation, and electromagnetic pulse generated by the explosion would endanger the more than 9,500 satellites currently in orbit. The suspected weapon, if developed, would add to Russia’s existing non-nuclear ASAT capabilities, which include both direct-ascent and co-orbital options. 

“Given Russia’s spurious excuses for its veto of the Security Council resolution, it is all the more important that other member states of the United Nations, especially the states-parties to the Outer Space Treaty, collectively express their support for the treaty,” Kimball said. 

While the Security Council has primary responsibility for peace and security within the United Nations system, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, a standing body set up by the UN General Assembly in 1959, could take up a resolution patterned on the U.S.-Japan Security Council resolution when the Committee convenes for its next session June 19-28.

States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which will meet in July, should highlight their concerns about nuclear-armed ASAT weapons, and restate their support for keeping outer space free of nuclear weapons. The UN General Assembly, which will reconvene in September, can and should call upon all states to refrain from actions that would violate the Outer Space Treaty.

To date, 115 states, including Russia and the United States, have ratified the Outer Space Treaty and a further 23 have signed but not yet ratified it. Those 23 states, in addition to the countries that have not yet acceded, could clarify their support by finally ratifying the treaty. While most states do not operate their own satellites, they all share in the benefits of a peaceful space regime.

The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.