In Search of a Legal Solution to the Weaponisation of Space: A Russian Perspective

Author: Zvedre, Y. K.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 July 2020

Around that time, the Soviet Union and the US were deeply engaged in discussing the mandate for the arms control negotiations, whether or not to include the issue of preventing the weaponisation of outer space, alongside the general issues related to strategic and intermediate systems. In January 1985 an agreement was reached at the meeting of the US Secretary State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to discuss the issue of an arms race in space along with intermediate-range nuclear forces and strategic arms reductions. Nuclear and Space Talks started in May 1985, resulting in adoption of the INF Treaty in 1987, and START I Treaty in 1991.

However, despite the historic break-through in the nuclear and missile disarmament, the Soviet proposal calling for prevention of an arms race in space and Reagan’s cherished SDI remained incompatible throughout the talks. The two sides ultimately could not come to an agreement and they finally ceased addressing the issue of space weapons.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, bilateral negotiations over the space security came to a halt. In the early 1990s the Russian Federation and the US put forward a few related initiatives, such as the concept of a Global Protection System against missile threat, announced at the US-Russia summit in June 1992 that was based on President H.W. Bush’s concept of the Global Protection Against Limited Strike. In the meantime, the US initiated a further transformation of the national ballistic missile defence program that involved the demand to “update” the ABM Treaty and culminated on 1 September 2000, when President Clinton announced the development of a limited National Missile Defence system. This brought to a halt any further joint activity, and Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002 left little hope that new bilateral space-related arms control negotiations would occur in the post-Cold War era.

With the failure of the superpowers’ effort to address the weaponisation of space in the bilateral format, the issue was moved to multilateral forums. From Moscow’s perspective, there could be no better platform for working out appropriate international legal regulators preventing an arms race in space than existing UN mechanisms, which have proved their effectiveness previously at times of intensive development of space law norms.

Since the early 1980s, the UN Conference on Disarmament (UNCD), the world’s only permanent multilateral disarmament issues negotiating body, was mandated to hold negotiations under the agenda item “prevention of an arms race in outer space” (PAROS), including draft treaties aimed at preventing the placement of weapons in outer space and prohibiting the use of anti-satellite weapons. The issues that have arisen in the PAROS format have also been discussed in the UN General Assembly First and Fourth committees, and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPU- OS), among others.