🌍 Russia's secret satellite weapon

Plus: PNG's high commission in Canberra

Hi Intriguer. The annual Munich Security Conference kicks off at the city's Bayerischer Hof hotel tomorrow. It's touted to be the world's most important security dialogue, but fear not - we'll track it over the weekend and get you up to speed in Monday's briefing.

Of course, one thing you can guarantee to be all the chatter among the coffee queues in Munich (as it was over the past 24 hours here in DC) will be Russia’s new space laser. Or space nuke. Or nuke laser. Or whatever it was that prompted a Congressman to drop Wednesday’s very intriguing statement about "a destabilizing foreign military capability".

As ever, today's briefing brings you what you need to know.

- Helen Zhang, Co-Founder

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TODAY’S NEWS

Israel raids Nasser Hospital. Following a days-long siege, Israeli troops have conducted a raid into Gaza’s largest functioning hospital, claiming Hamas was keeping the bodies of dead hostages there. There were reports of sniper fire and armoured vehicles entering the area, where thousands of Palestinians had been seeking shelter. Meanwhile, Egypt is building a walled enclosure near its border with Gaza as a contingency for a possible influx of refugees from Israel’s planned offensive in Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians are now sheltering.

Ukraine partly pulls out of Avdiivka. Ukraine’s military is retreating from parts of Avdiivka after months of intense fighting. The town is key to Russia’s aim of capturing Ukraine’s whole industrial Donbas region, potentially with a view to President Putin’s re-election next month. According to US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, “Avdiivka is at risk of falling into Russian control”, citing critical ammunition shortages as further US aid remains uncertain.

EU plans to subsidise defence industry. In an interview with the Financial Times, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said “we have to spend more, we have to spend better, we have to spend European”. A plan to incentivise production and coordinate procurement is due next month.

Ex-FBI informant charged with lying in Biden-Ukraine case. Alexander Smirnov stands accused of fabricating claims that President Biden and his son Hunter each sought $5M in bribes from a Ukrainian company. His claims, first made in 2020, formed part of a later push to impeach President Biden.

Greece legalises same-sex marriage. The Greek parliament approved the legalisation of same-sex civil marriage in a bipartisan move on Thursday, becoming the first Orthodox-majority country to do so.

TOP STORY

What we know (and don’t know) about Russia’s anti-satellite weapon system

Folks in Washington are abuzz right now - here’s why.

On Wednesday, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner, surprised everyone with a cryptic call for the White House to declassify information about a “serious national security threat”, so that everyone could “openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat”.

What was this threat? He didn’t say. So everyone in the city went scrambling for the inside word on this “destabilizing foreign military capability”.

Here are six things we ✌️know✌️ so far:

  1. The threat is an anti-satellite weapon system being developed by Russia

  2. It could be nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered

  3. It’s not designed to attack people or cause physical destruction on Earth

  4. The White House says the weapon would violate the Outer Space Treaty, which bans nukes and other weapons of mass destruction in space

  5. The intelligence reportedly says that the US “does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites”, and

  6. The weapon is not yet in orbit, it’s unclear when that might happen, and it’s not an urgent threat, though there’s a “limited time window” at play.

The world already has ground-based anti-satellite weapons, as well as space-based nuclear reactors. So if we’re talking about a new Russian capability that breaches the Outer Space Treaty, here are two of the most likely theories:

First, it could be a nuclear weapon deployed in space: some outlets are quoting anonymous US officials saying it’s indeed a nuke. But the US tested high-altitude nukes in the 1960s, and ended up not only wiping out satellites on the far side of the planet, but even fried a NASA satellite launched afterwards (due to the lingering radiation).

Even regular weapons cause havoc in space, as Russia learned in 2021 when its destruction of an old satellite caused enough debris to spook the International Space Station (with Russians onboard). So given the risks to Russia itself and its space-faring partners like China or North Korea, a space nuke seems improbable.

Second, it could be a nuclear-powered electronic warfare capability in space, to fry, blind, or jam US satellites. The Outer Space Treaty doesn’t even mention - let alone ban - electronic warfare. But the US could be a) seeking to shoe-horn such a device into the Treaty’s definition of a weapon of mass destruction, or b) claiming such a device breaches the Treaty’s broader principles around the peaceful use of space.

This electronic warfare theory might suggest the US is stretching the Treaty’s commonly understood meaning. But this option would also be less destructive to Russia’s own interests, and it fits what we already know about Russia’s goal to deploy an electronic warfare capability into space by 2025, as well as the progress it’s already made to date (using nuclear reactors).

US officials have apparently known about Russia’s new capability for a year. So then why raise it now? There’s speculation the timing could be linked to:

  • Last week’s launch of Russia’s classified Cosmos 2575 satellite

  • The ongoing standoff in Congress about whether to keep helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia, and/or

  • Another standoff in Congress about whether to renew a US legal authority for intelligence collection - the same legal authority that apparently first brought this new Russian space capability to light.

So for everything we know about this Russian weapon, there’s plenty we don’t.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

We’ve been accustomed to the US having an overwhelming military and technological advantage over its rivals. So these reports, coming at a moment of US introspection, seem to have hit like a modern-day Sputnik.

But open societies with their raucous media tend to give a vivid portrayal of their own weakness. And closed societies with their state media tend to leave only a generous portrayal of their own strength.

Somehow, this week’s intelligence on Russia seems to have done both.

Also worth noting:

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MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE…

  1. 🇹🇼 Taiwan: China has reprimanded Taiwan after the death of two mainland Chinese fishermen who were involved in a chase with the Taiwanese coastguard. Taipei says the fishing boat trespassed into Taiwanese waters and resisted an inspection.

  2. 🇫🇷 France: Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky is due to sign a bilateral security agreement with his French counterpart President Macron today (Friday). These deals would typically include the provision of modern military equipment and the training of Ukrainian soldiers. 

  3. 🇮🇳 India: India will soon start talks to become the 32nd full member of the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IAE), the main body for energy-consuming nations. Over the next three decades, fast-growing India is projected to see more growth in energy demand than any other country. 

  4. 🇵🇾 Paraguay: The senate has expelled one of Paraguay’s few opposition lawmakers, sparking protests and prompting questions about the state of the country’s democracy. The ejected senator, an outspoken critic of corruption and organised crime, was accused of various instances of administrative misconduct.

  5. 🇳🇬 Nigeria: Nigeria is considering establishing state police forces in its 36 states. The idea would be to support the national police force, which continues to face challenges posed by an Islamist insurgency, separatist movements, and ransom gangs. 

EXTRA INTRIGUE

Here are some weekend recommendations if you find yourself in Canberra

EMBASSY OF THE DAY

The Raggiana bird-of-paradise is the national bird of Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Papua New Guinea’s high commission (embassy) in the Australian capital of Canberra is one-of-a-kind. It’s inspired by a ‘Haus Tambaran’, a traditional type of spirit house from PNG’s Sepik River. Folks there are renowned for their carving and painting prowess, which is often featured in important local sites, PNG’s national parliament, and this - its diplomatic mission in neighbouring Australia.

The high commission’s stunning images and carvings were mostly the work of students at PNG’s National Art School in Port Moresby.

Our rating: 9.9/10

FRIDAY QUIZ

Today in 1959, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba after toppling General Fulgencio Batista.

1) Which of the following Nobel laureates asked Fidel Castro for help with their manuscripts?

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2) Which of the following was not a real CIA plot against Castro?

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3) Fidel Castro holds the record for longest speech at the UN General Assembly. How long was his address?

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