Whoever rules the Heartland, commands the World

The fight for the skies; How governments are battling in the era of Astropolitics

By Matt Ross

In his 2015 book Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall detailed the historical and geographical factors that explain Putin’s 2022 attack on Ukraine. Now, he warns, the global race for resources and military power is entering a new phase – and prompting an arms race in the skies far above our heads. Matt Ross meets him.

With heavy use of artillery, tanks and trenches, Ukraine’s war often looks more like World War I than a 21st century conflict. Yet the use of drones has created a “sea change” in how battles are being fought, says Tim Marshall.

While those defensive emplacements and heavy weapons remain as deadly as ever, “the soldiers in the trenches and in the tanks now have this incredible extra threat, but also this asset: they can see around the corner,” he explains. This makes forces manoeuvring or massing on the battlefield much more vulnerable to artillery fire.

Inevitably, this new arms race is driving the development of anti-drone weapons. “The Americans have already perfected a directed energy beam – a laser – designed to shoot down drones,” says Marshall. “There will be motorised versions of these anti-drone laser guns, and people will drive them around the battlefield; at which point we’ll get swarms of drones, and we’ll advance through this latest iteration of warfare.”

So despite appearances, this is a very contemporary battlefield. It is also, however, a very old conflict: Putin’s attack on Ukraine represents Russia’s latest bid to secure strategic goals that, rooted in the country’s geography, have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Russia’s goals – ancient and novel

As Marshall explained in his 2015 book Prisoners of Geography, Russia has repeatedly been invaded through the vast plain stretching across northern Europe – leaving it determined to dominate a buffer zone running from the Baltic states to Ukraine. Meanwhile, to maintain year-round naval access to the high seas, it has long sought to control deep-water ports in the Black Sea – particularly Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet since the 18th century.

Ukraine’s 2014 tilt towards the West threatened both goals; Putin responded by occupying Crimea and backing separatists in the east. “With his eye on history, he wasn’t going to be the guy that lost Crimea and Sevastopol,” comments Marshall. Russia’s 2022 invasion was in part designed to “absolutely nail down their access to their only warm water port,” he adds. “The Russians clearly wanted to get Odessa, but the battle plans went wrong. That would have cut Ukraine off from the sea completely, making it a landlocked country.”

These weren’t the only reasons behind the invasion, says Marshall: Putin fell victim to hubris, and discounted the impact of a decade of Western military training and support on Ukraine’s armed forces. Russia’s leader also “has a view of the West as an ageing, effete, weak culture, which will give up”: he had, after all, previously attacked Georgia, occupied Crimea, and intervened in Syria without provoking a reaction from the West.

When making the call on Ukraine, “I don’t think he realised that this was of a much greater magnitude, and such a direct threat to the entire West,” says Marshall. “He completely underestimated the resolve that this shock to our system would give us.” But Putin’s decision was entirely in-keeping with both his world view, and Russian thinking over the ages: “He believes that the fall of the Soviet Union – which, he’s said, was the Russian Empire by another name – was a catastrophe,” notes Marshall.

Putin’s tools may be contemporary, but his behaviour can’t be understood without a long-term perspective on the interplay between geography, politics and defence: a topic that has fascinated Marshall throughout his career.

Adventures in geography

As a child, Marshall was enthralled by the “amazing romantic adventure” of foreign reporting; and after leaving school at 16, he met a secretary from news broadcaster LBC/IRN at a night school class. “She happened to know they needed someone for three days as a sort of basic tea boy,” he recalls. “That was how I got in, and that three days lasted 30 years.” Moving on to the BBC and Sky News, Marshall subsequently worked as a TV reporter, foreign affairs editor and diplomatic editor in 30 countries and a dozen war zones.

Reporting on conflicts, he soon learned “that it was hard to understand the politics without the geography”. And his interest grew after the end of the Cold War, with the rise in wars – such as those in the former Yugoslavia – that could not be understood in terms of international relations, but only through the lenses of demographics, history, culture and physical geography.

Prisoners of Geography represented an attempt to explain and illustrate how countries’ geographies shape their fates. Books on flags, border barriers and maps followed, and now Marshall has published a new book examining a fresh and crucial field of geo-politics: space. In The Future of Geography, he explores the political geography of space – highlighting key assets such as mineral resources, advantageous orbits and satellite capabilities, and setting out the risks and opportunities emerging in this new era of “astropolitics”.

The second space race

We are already, argues Marshall, “deep into the second space race”. The first, driven by the Cold War’s superpower one-upmanship, was won when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969. Today’s goals are different: “The second space race is primarily driven by economics, and the second foundation is military,” he says.

This search for financial returns and military advantage has attracted a crowded starting grid, with the US, China and Russia jostling for pole position. All have their eyes fixed on the moon’s deposits of minerals, metals, and rare earth and scarce elements such as helium-3. “Potentially, it is part of an emerging economy as important as coal once was,” comments Marshall. Though the economics of mining the moon remain unproven, ice in the south pole’s craters could be turned into rocket fuel; meanwhile the craters’ lips enjoy permanent sunlight, offering endless solar power.

Over the last year alone, South Korea, the US, Italy, Japan, the UAE, the European Space Agency, India and Russia have launched moon missions, while the Americans and Chinese plan permanent lunar bases by the decade’s end. This looming gold rush already carries echoes of the Wild West – for we lack a global legal framework governing access to and exploitation of the moon’s resources.

More than 20 countries have signed the US-led Artemis Accords, which prevent nations from claiming sovereignty over the moon but permit them, for example, to exclude other countries from “safety zones” around their bases and mines. “That sounds a bit like sovereignty,” says Marshall. “What they’re trying to do with Artemis is grow it so that through the century, it becomes the globally-accepted rules of the road for space.

But, given the great divisions on Earth, Marshall  foresees increasingly divided blocks of countries – one led by America, one led by China competing for space. Indeed, both China and Russia are specifically excluded from Artemis. The potential for conflict is obvious.

Satellite states

Meanwhile, national interests are already colliding in the increasingly crowded orbits around Earth, where more than 8,000 satellites support a range of crucial services including communications, broadcasting, navigation and weather forecasting. These tensions are most obvious in the Ukraine war, where both sides are dependent on satellites for intelligence, imaging and communications – with the Ukrainian forces using Elon Musk’s Starlink internet system and, it appears, receiving support from NATO. “This is the first real space war,” comments Marshall. “It’s the first time both sides have had access to space assets.”

Both the military potential of satellites, and their centrality to modern ways of life, make them tempting targets in the event of war. Russia regularly uses light beams to ‘dazzle’ the Starlink satellites providing Ukrainian forces with internet connections, says Marshall, and leading nations already have the technology to fit satellites with lasers able to fry other orbiters’ electrical systems. “So far, happily, they have refrained from that,” he says. “But the temptation will grow.” Satellites are nowadays “part of our critical infrastructure”, he adds: governments should have plans in place for how to deal with outages, whether caused by military action or by other threats such as solar flares.

To test and demonstrate their offensive capabilities, Marshall explains, “four countries – India, China, the US and Russia – have fired a ballistic missile from the Earth and knocked one of their own satellites out”. This is problematic both because it accelerates thepace of the space arms race, and because each impact creates thousands of pieces of space debris – each travelling at 25,000km/h. NASA estimates that there are now more than 500,000 pieces of debris greater than 1cm across in orbit around Earth, any of which could destroy a satellite or space station.

Toxic waste and laser guns

In a worst-case scenario, the destruction of one satellite could set off a domino effect, with each new impact generating debris that in turn takes out more space hardware. The Earth could ultimately become enclosed within a whirling ball of detritus that makes new launches almost impossible; and with the number of satellites set to grow by more than 20,000 this decade, the threat presented by this so-called ‘Kessler Syndrome’ continues to grow. Space debris is now the biggest single concern among space experts, says Marshall, calling for “serious impetus towards global cooperation on preventing [the Kessler Syndrome] from happening, with a global organisation openly sharing every scrap of information about every bit of metal out there: where it is, what it’s doing and what they predict it will do”.

Sadly, there is no sign of progress on this front. The Americans have said they won’t destroy any more of their satellites in space, notes Marshall, but the Russians and Chinese have made no such pledge: “They want to make sure they have the ability to test, to ensure that they have parity.”

Indeed, Russia is taking an increasingly aggressive stance in space. On Earth, says Marshall, the country’s economy and its military capabilities are in long-term decline: “Its relative isolation from the advanced economies; its demographics; its lack of innovation; and over a much longer term, the world’s declining use of fossil fuels – all that points in one direction.” Meanwhile, the battering suffered by its armed forces in Ukraine means that “the Russian military will be in no position to threaten the Baltics or, indeed, Moldova, for a decade”.

This terrestrial weakness, however, only increases Russia’s focus on developing its space-based military capabilities. “Sadly, I think Russia’s future in space may be very much focused on military,” says Marshall. “They’re putting a lot of money and tech into anti-satellite weapons, because they know that they cannot have parity with America on the ground, but they can try to keep up with the American militarily in space.”

So while drones prompt a new arms race in the skies over terrestrial battlegrounds, still further above us a space arms race is developing – with countries seeking the military heft to protect their satellite networks, attack those of rival nations, and secure their share of the moon’s minerals and metals. During the Cold War, the nuclear arms race was contained through a series of non-proliferation and arms limitation treaties; now Marshall calls for “a new space treaty, fit for the 21st century, about weapons, the commons of space ownership, mining rights, non-militarisation”, and the future rights of countries that have not as yet built their own space sectors. The Artemis Accords cover some of these issues, he says, but represents only the interests of the US and its allies: “Can we just have a global treaty instead?”

To date, there is little evidence that the international community has woken up to these issues. “I think this is going to go on for several more years until it settles down, and then people will start discussing treaties,” concludes Marshall. “There’s nothing I can see on the horizon.”

But the importance of these issues is only going to grow – and the costs of inaction could be great: a conflict in space could paralyse national economies and infrastructures, or even leave the world locked inside an impenetrable ball of circling waste. At the height of the Cold War, the world’s biggest rivals agreed to constrain their own armed forces in the interests of avoiding collective catastrophe; it is time that today’s global leaders showed the same common sense.

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