The Russian regime has test-fired an anti-satellite weapon in space, US and British officials say, igniting fears that Moscow's actions may spark a new era of arms control.
US Space Command said it "has evidence that Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon" on July 15.
"Last week's test is another example that the threats to US and Allied space systems are real, serious and increasing," the Thursday (July 23) statement said.
"Actions like this threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends," said Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth, commander of the United Kingdom's Space Directorate.
"Clearly this is unacceptable," tweeted US nuclear disarmament negotiator Marshall Billingslea, adding that it would be a "major issue" discussed next week in Vienna, where he is in talks on a successor to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
The treaty caps the nuclear warheads of the US and Russia -- the two Cold War-era superpowers.
'Hostile acts in space'
The test involved Russian satellite "Cosmos 2543" injecting an object into orbit, said US Space Command.
Russian state media has said that Cosmos 2543 had been deployed by another satellite, Cosmos 2542, which was launched last November 25, by the Russian military.
The satellite is meant to "monitor the condition of Russian satellites", the Defence Ministry said, but state daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta said it has the ability to "get information from somebody else's satellites".
The system is the same one that US Space Command raised concerns about earlier this year, when it manoeuvred near a US government satellite, said Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of US Space Command.
It is the latest example of Russian satellites behaving in a manner "inconsistent with their stated mission", the Space Command statement said, adding that the US State Department raised similar concerns in 2018 and earlier this year.
"The United States, in co-ordination with our allies, is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the nation, our allies and vital US interests from hostile acts in space," Raymond said.
"This event highlights Russia's hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control," said US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford.
This is not the first time the Kremlin has flouted its obligations in an international arms control treaty.
NATO allies and the European Union are urging the Russian regime to comply with the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which Washington announced earlier in 2020 that it would leave, citing numerous and repeated violations by the Kremlin.
Last October, Russian President Vladimir Putin watched as the country's armed forces participated in exercises designed to simulate nuclear war.
The Grom-19 (Thunder-19) strategy games tested missiles that can carry thermo-nuclear warheads, involving "heightened tensions on Russia's border".
The games, which did not involve foreign forces, took place soon after Russia and the United States abandoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which limited the use of nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500km.
The United States formally abrogated the historic pact last August, citing years of Russian violations.
"Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the treaty," NATO said at the time, accusing Moscow of violating the pact that limited the use of medium-range missiles, both conventional and nuclear.
The INF Treaty was seen as one of two key arms treaties between Russia and the United States -- the other being New START, which keeps the nuclear arsenals of both countries well below their Cold War peak.
However, this deal too is set to expire in 2021, and there appears to be little political will to negotiate an extension.
Last year's missile test, the expiry of the INF Treaty and the impending demise of the Open Skies Treaty come as Moscow aggressively tests a number of weapons it has bragged -- without evidence -- are "invincible", even as it professes to be a peaceful country.