NATO’s Entire Military Satellite Network Supporting Ukrainian War Effort: Why Russia’s Allegations Matter

The Russian government has claimed that NATO’s entire network of satellites, and more broadly the alliance’s entire military infrastructure, is working to support Ukraine’s war effort. “We see how NATO’s entire military infrastructure is working against Russia, and we see how NATO’s entire intelligence infrastructure, including reconnaissance aviation, and satellite groupings are working in the interests of Ukraine in a 24/7 mode,” an official statement from the Kremlin alleged on February 1. The Russian-Ukrainian War, now in its eleventh month, has seen space capabilities play an unprecedentedly central role, with the collective satellite capabilities of NATO’s member states providing the Ukrainian Military and supporting armed groups with a considerable advantage due to the greater limitations faced by Russia’s own smaller network. This has included rapid provision of targeting data for missile and artillery strikes, which have taken a heavy toll on Russian forces and could become more dangerous still as the United States moves to supply longer ranged missiles. 

Several NATO members have walked a fine line between arming and supporting Ukraine and becoming active kinetic participants in the war efforts, with growing revelations of Western personnel on the ground supporting Ukrainian forces. On December 13, for example, British Deputy Chief of Defence Staff General Robert Magowan revealed that hundreds of Royal Marines had been carrying out high risk operations alongside Ukrainian government forces from April. The New York Times reported six months prior that a CIA ‘stealth network’ was at the crux of the war, referring to the U.S. as establishing within Ukraine “a stealthy network of commandos and spies rushing to provide weapons, intelligence and training… C.I.A. personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, Kiev, directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces.” The “signs of their stealthy logistics, training and intelligence support are tangible on the battlefield,” the Times observed. “Commandos from other NATO countries, including Britain, France, Canada and Lithuania, also have been working inside Ukraine… training and advising Ukrainian troops and providing an on-the-ground conduit for weapons and other aid,” it added, stressing the sheer “scale of the secretive effort to assist Ukraine that is underway.” 

Western volunteers, often ex military personnel, have also flowed into the country in considerable numbers often with the encouragement of their governments. The Georgian Legion is perhaps the most famous unit comprised of such personnel, and has had particularly large manpower contributions from Britain. While Russia has targeted Western assets within Ukraine, at times causing hundreds of casualties among foreign combatants, it has refrained from targeting the satellites or surveillance aircraft outside Ukraine’s territory which have played a key role in bolstering its war effort. Russia has modernised its anti satellite capabilities significantly in recent years with assets such as the S-500 and A-235 missile systems and a new anti satellite warfare variant of the MiG-31 interceptor. The limited nature of Western participation in the war has been key to preventing Russia from escalating to target satellite networks.