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November 11, 2006

JAMES OBERG SAYS THAT OVERWROUGHT PRESS COVERAGE is producing a Russia/U.S. war of words over outer space, even though there's really no there, there:

International frictions over space policy took a rising turn this week, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing unnamed countries — clearly meaning the United States and perhaps Israel — of "seeking to untie their hands in order to take weapons to outer space, including nuclear weapons."

Speaking Wednesday at a anniversary celebration at the headquarters of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, Putin continued: "Great harm to stability is caused by unilateral, illegitimate actions by some powers." In a separate newspaper interview, GRU Chief Valentin Korabelnikov echoed Putin’s specific warning: "Our attention is focused on the threats associated with the appearance of destabilizing weapons, including plans to launch weapons, including nuclear weapons, into space." . . .

Far more frightening than the purported U.S. deployment of space-based weapons — an eventuality that space experts generally consider remote — is the knee-jerk reaction in Moscow, fueled by cultural Russian paranoia, to the widely published press predictions of such weapons.

Thinking themselves justified by such rumors, Russian leaders could instinctively respond by fielding dusted-off and refurbished space weapons from the Soviet era, along with militarized versions of dual-use modern space technologies. But if they did so, they would be sparring with a phantom — and might realize that too late.

It almost happened once before. In the early 1980s, some hysterical Western press reports about NASA’s new space shuttle and its supposedly secret role as a space combat ship, bomb carrier and laser weapons platform apparently worried Kremlin chief Yuri Andropov enough to initiate responses. By the mid-1980s, Moscow was gearing up for a shooting war in orbit, using space combat stations to forbid astronauts the right of overflight of Soviet territory. . . .

Amid what is starting to look like a 21st-century reprise of the original Moscow miscalculations, it’s too much to hope for the appearance of another Gorbachev. The Russians must be told, and told quickly and credibly, that the press accounts are inaccurate and unworthy of belief — and undeserving of counteraction.

Unfortunately, alarmist news stories are all too often the ‘spin of choice’ in general, and the preferred strategy in the case of domestic political infighting. But the threat of falsely sparking a genuine space weapons race through the cynical or just careless promulgation of myths of such an "arms race" is too high for business as usual, on Earth or in space.

As Oberg notes, U.S. military space policy remains essentially unchanged since the Clinton Administration. You'd think that the Kremlin would have sources it trusts more than the U.S. media, though.

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