This is the case with the deployment of the Starlink system by Elon Musk, at the request of the Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov. This constellation of satellites is connected to thousands of small antennas distributed in combat zones, making it possible to maintain an Internet connection even when terrestrial installations (cables and towers) are affected. In addition to allowing civilians, who have been cut off from networks, to keep in touch with their loved ones, the support of this satellite system has helped the Ukrainian armed forces to observe Russian advances, relayed by civilians through dedicated smartphone applications.
Finally, it is important to note that the nuclear threat posed by Russia is related to the space domain. Space plays a role in nuclear deterrence in two ways: intercontinental ballistic missiles pass through the space domain when they are deployed, a fact recalled in a surreal broadcast on Russian television. In addition, the outer space domain is the orbit where the satellites for detecting potential ballistic attack launches are located.
Space strategy has historically been characterized by strong cooperation between spacefaring nations, of which the International Space Station (ISS) is an example. How has this cooperation been undermined by the war waged by Russia, and what does this portend for the future, given that, in February 2022, twenty-seven European ministers declared that "European sovereignty depends on space"?
Two phenomena have shaped space geopolitics. First, space and its stakes have long seemed to escape the logic of conflicts between great powers for 50 years. We remember the rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, which gave rise to the cooperation project on the Russian Mir station in 1986, and then to the International Space Station in 1998. During the 2000s, space cooperation also seemed to be spared the shocks of the fall of the USSR. More recently, Russians and Americans have continued to collaborate, even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The second phenomenon that has been observed in recent years is the realignment of space strategies between states. On the one hand, we have witnessed - as in other areas - a clear rapprochement between the Russian and Chinese powers, illustrated in 2021 by Russia's declared wish to participate in the Chinese lunar space station. On the other hand, the United States is reaffirming its desire to be the world's leading space power, as shown by the so-called "Artemis" agreements proposed in 2020, in order to return astronauts to the moon by 2025. The United States is strongly encouraging its allies to join the project, knowing full well that Russia and China are opposed. There is thus a growing polarization in space, emphasizing a shift in the multilateral system that has prevailed until now.
From this point of view, the war in Ukraine marks an acceleration of the dual processes of conflictualizing and polarizing the space domain. This was first made evident with the Russian announcement of its wish to withdraw from the ISS. The scope of this announcement remains uncertain at this stage; for the moment, the Russians maintain relatively normal activity within the station. The future of the ISS, whose life expectancy should be extended until the end of the decade, is nevertheless full of pitfalls, and the Europeans and Americans are already thinking about solutions in case of Moscow’s rapid withdrawal.
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