U.S. briefs Canada, other allies about Russian nuclear threat

The U.S. has informed Congress, as well as Canada and other allies about a pressing national security concern involving Russia.

Theoretical anti-satellite weapon is likely a bargaining chip to push for a Ukraine ceasefire: Canadian expert

The U.S. Capitol is seen in a file photo from August 2023.
The U.S. has informed Congress, Canada and other allies about a pressing national security concern involving Russia. (Kevin Wurm/Reuters)

The U.S. has informed Congress, as well as Canada and other allies, about a pressing national security concern involving Russia.

The New York Times, citing unnamed officials, reported Wednesday that the U.S. revealed new intelligence about Russian nuclear capabilities that could pose an international threat. A senior source with direct knowledge of the briefing confirmed to CBC News that Canada was among the allies briefed by the U.S. on the issue.

Citing a current and a former U.S. official, the newspaper reported the new intelligence was related to Russia's attempts to develop a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon. ABC News also reported that the intelligence had to do with such a capability.

Current and former officials said the nuclear weapon was not in orbit, the Times reported.

Russia neither confirms nor denies

The exact nature of the weapon — and whether it actually exists — is unclear. But threatening satellites could cause all sorts of mischief: undermining communications, surveillance, intelligence, and command and control around the world, including in the nuclear sphere.

It is also unclear why Russia would need to use nuclear weapons to destroy a satellite. 

The intelligence came to light after U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Republican chair of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, issued an unusual and cryptic statement on Wednesday warning of a "serious national security threat."

WATCH | Russia's 'nuclear sabre rattling' needs united international response, ex NATO official says: 

Russia's 'nuclear sabre rattling' needs united international response, former NATO official says

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Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO, says media reports suggesting Russia is trying to develop space-based nuclear weapons aimed at threatening satellite systems, show the importance of unified international action.

Russia has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a weapon but it has dismissed the U.S. warning as a "malicious fabrication" and a trick by the White House aimed at getting U.S. lawmakers to approve more money to counter Moscow.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he would not comment on the substance of the reports until the details were unveiled by the White House. But he said Washington's warning was clearly an attempt to get Congress to approve more money.

"It is obvious that the White House is trying, by hook or by crook, to encourage Congress to vote on a bill to allocate money, this is obvious," Peskov said. "We'll see what tricks the White House will use."

90% of nuclear weapons belong to Russia, U.S.

Russia and the U.S. are by far the biggest nuclear powers: together, their arsenals hold about 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, and both have advanced military satellites orbiting the Earth.

In the early years of the Cold War, after Russia leaped ahead in the space race and both sides developed  intercontinental ballistic missiles, the West proposed a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons in space.

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Defence Minister Bill Blair, speaking to Power & Politics from Brussels, said he expects 'additional clarification' from his U.S. counterparts about reports of an emerging security threat from Russia, adding it's best to leave it to the U.S. to comment on their intelligence.

The eventual result was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which bans putting any weapons of mass destruction into orbit or outer space.

A hawk is seen flying past an American flag on display near the White House.
The U.S. has informed Canada and other allies about a pressing national security concern involving Russia. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. casts Russia and China as its biggest nation-state competitors and says both are developing a range of new weapons systems, including nuclear, cyber and space capabilities.
Russia says the post-Cold War dominance of the U.S. is crumbling and that Washington has, for years, sown chaos across the planet while ignoring the interests of other powers. Moscow says the U.S. is also developing a host of new weapons.

Debate over Ukraine

Turner's statement was released in the midst of intense debate in Congress over how the U.S. should be dealing with global threats from Russia and other rivals, with security hawks urging greater global involvement. Some lawmakers most closely allied with former U.S. president Donald Trump advocated for a more "America First" approach to world affairs.

Andrew Rasiulis of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told CBC News that the Russian threat of a nuclear anti-satellite weapon is likely a bargaining chip meant to force a ceasefire in Ukraine.

"The Russians are saying, look it, you're never going to get your 1991 borders, which is what Ukraine wants. Because if you ever did that we'd go escalatory. We could go nuclear. We could knock out satellite systems. We could blind all your GPS systems. We could do all sorts of things, so we're not going to go there. Let's end the war sooner rather than later."

WATCH | Russian anti-satellite threat still theoretical but could impact 'bargaining game' over Ukraine, expert says: 

Russian anti-satellite threat still theoretical but could impact 'bargaining game' over Ukraine, expert says

2 months ago
Duration 1:57
Andrew Rasiulis of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute says reported Russian advances around a nuclear anti-satellite system, while still theoretical, could have real-world implications as a bargaining chip in Russia's war against Ukraine.

Canada's role would simply be offering support to the U.S., he said. "We're not in the satellite killer business."

Turner recently returned from leading a bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine, after which he warned his fellow lawmakers that time was running out for Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders.

The Biden administration has been ramping up its criticism of House Republicans for possibly blocking a $95-billion US bill passed by the Senate that would supply aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Supporters of the bill argue that a major reason for the U.S. to back the government in Kyiv is to push back against threats from Russia that extend beyond Ukraine.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a staunch Trump ally who says he will not rush to allow a vote on the Senate bill, told reporters at the Capitol there was no need for public alarm. "Steady hands are at the wheel. We're working on it and there's no need for alarm," he said.

Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, the ranking member of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement that the classified information is "significant" but "not a cause for panic."

The White House and lawmakers expressed frustration at how Turner raised his concerns. His announcement appeared to catch the Biden administration off-guard.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House that he already had been due to brief Turner and other senior congressional leaders today. Sullivan did not disclose the topic or provide any other details related to Turner's statement.

With files from the CBC's Katie Simpson and The Associated Press