Russia successfully conducted a test in which a direct-ascent missile destroyed a nearly 40-year-old defunct Soviet spy satellite, U.S. Space Command announced Monday. This unsettling development is noteworthy because it coincides with Russia’s massive military buildup along the Ukrainian border. Moscow’s pre-positioning of more than 100,000 soldiers, tanks and heavy weaponry has spurred the Pentagon’s concerns about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow’s posturing on what the Russians call a “space weapon” signals a rapidly escalating crisis in U.S.-Russia relations. Washington’s foreign policy and Moscow’s view of its national interests are on a geopolitical collision course. Russia views the formerly Soviet Ukraine as part of its strategic security perimeter, on which Moscow has relied for centuries as a geographical buffer against foreign invasion. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said the U.S. is crossing a red line by attempting to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.
In April, at his annual address to the Russian Parliament, Mr. Putin threatened a “swift, asymmetric and harsh response,” if the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervene on Ukraine’s behalf.
But how could Russia win a war against a much stronger adversary? That’s where Monday’s antisatellite test comes in. It’s a preview of Mr. Putin’s Space Armageddon strategy. Russian strategists have observed American war fighters’ tactics in conflict zones for nearly a quarter-century—in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. They learned that America’s superior space capability is its Achilles’ heel because of the U.S. military’s near-total dependence on it. Many civilian drivers would be lost without directions from their smartphones. U.S. troops in war zones rely on the same constellation of 31 GPS satellites for tasks like synchronizing operations, pinpointing targets and locating personnel. Moscow therefore seeks to deafen and blind U.S. forces in conflicts. By attacking U.S. satellites, the Russians would attempt to offset superior U.S. conventional firepower.
They also hope to paralyze U.S. forces psychologically by rendering them helpless. Russian military theorists often write about the importance of targeting both the technical capabilities and the mind of an adversary, planning to disorganize its troops and weaken their will to fight.
Alarmingly, Washington is as unprepared for Mr. Putin’s star wars as it was for Russia’s determination to wage cyberwarfare. Monday’s test executed only a single page out of Mr. Putin’s playbook, which includes lasers, jammers and other satellite killers. Before the situation in Ukraine escalates into war, the Pentagon had better develop a strategy to counter Mr. Putin’s plan for Space Armageddon.