Russia is preparing to introduce a new generation of its GLONASS satellite navigation system, with expanded global infrastructure. Several Western intelligence agencies say the program is also being used to conduct high-level espionage.
A joint investigation by Newlines, Delfi.ee in Estonia, and Respekt magazine in the Czech Republic reveals that GLONASS contains two new mechanisms for conducting espionage, including on nuclear weapons systems.
GLONASS is the Russian equivalent of the United States’ GPS. It consists of 24 satellites and a number of ground stations that offer accurate positioning services for both the Russian military and commercial vendors. This year, it is set to launch its new K2 satellite system in combination with a planned expansion of ground stations that would give GLONASS greater accuracy.
According to evidence gathered by a NATO member state’s intelligence agency, the new systems will house a nuclear explosion detection mechanism to feed warning data to the Russian nuclear command-and-control system, which in turn will send the information to the Cheget, the nuclear briefcase always carried close to President Vladimir Putin.
“The most worrying new payload is a signals intelligence system that will give target location data on NATO surface vessels to the Russian naval forces to support engagement with long-range anti-ship missiles such as the 3M-54 (Kalibr),” said a source from the European agency, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The source added that this information is backed by documents the agency possesses and assesses to be “one hundred percent” reliable.
The signals intelligence system, according to the agency, has been developed by AO Information Satellite Systems Reshetnev (ISS), a subsidiary of Roscosmos, the Russian government-run space and aeronautics company, under the code name “OKR Ruveta.” ISS is based in the closed town of Zheleznogorsk in the Krasnoyarsk region in southern Russia. Its existence was a military secret until 1992; the town was missing from maps.
Parallel to upgrading the GLONASS satellites, Russia has intensified its efforts to build ground measuring systems around the world, a prerequisite for them to operate well. The goal is to set up 48 such stations in 35 different countries and the Antarctic, according to one Western intelligence source.
Among the list of target countries are several EU and NATO member states such as Denmark, Ireland, Bulgaria and the three Baltic nations, the U.S., China, India, Fiji, and Nauru. Brazil is one of the few countries that is already hosting GLONASS ground stations. Argentina has agreed but is now having strong doubts about the decision owing to reasons of national security.
Launched as a project in 1982, GLONASS has been bedeviled for years by financial and technological problems. It started with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which caused the program to reduce its capacity given more urgent political and economic considerations. Soon after Vladimir Putin became president, however, GLONASS became a top-order priority again, no doubt owing to what he saw as its potential strategic value.
Work on the new K2 generation of satellites got underway around 10 years ago, but its progress, too, was hindered by international sanctions on Russia; Western companies were banned from selling Russia microtechnology vital to these satellite systems. In 2014, following Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, ISS announced that GLONASS needed to continue with the lighter K1 models, which have less functionality. “The plans had to be adjusted somewhat because of the sanctions restricting the delivery of radiation-resistant electronic components from the West,” said Nikolay Testoyedov, the CEO of the company, at the time. “We have to put a hold on the in-depth development of technical and technological documentation and that delays us in terms of moving ahead by at least a year or two.”
A year later, the launch of the first K2 satellites was postponed to 2018. According to Russia’s news service TASS, Russia’s engineers were tasked with developing the necessary technology themselves so that the country could independently manufacture the satellites. As it stands, Roscosmos is hoping to launch the first new K2 satellites in the final months of this year.
“I can’t imagine such infrastructure in any EU or NATO country,” said Florian Vidal, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations who has intensively studied Russia’s space policy. He cited electronic intelligence-gathering as such a red flag as to eclipse any other technological consideration. “The U.S. is talking about the moon and Mars, but Russia’s priority in space will always be mainly military,” Vidal told Newlines. “It only wants to have control of the low orbit system because that allows to form a strategic connection between the navy, air and ground forces and space.”
The Latvian and Estonian ministries of foreign affairs were unofficially asked about the possibilities of their countries’ hosting GLONASS ground stations in 2019. Given their traumatic histories with Moscow, both as occupied nations and targets of ongoing intelligence and disinformation schemes, the discussions ended quickly.
“Of course we said no,” said a source familiar with the proposal in Latvia, adding that even though Latvia’s intelligence service did not, as of 2019, have specific information about GLONASS’ signals capabilities, the threat was so obvious that the refusal was immediate.
Karel Havlíček, the Czech Republic’s deputy prime minister and minister of transport, said that Russia officially asked permission to build a station in his country in early 2020. The Czechs didn’t give a quick yes or no but solicited specific information from Moscow. They wanted to know whether the system would have an active element that would send out a signal, what would be the purpose of this element, and for what they would use their system in the Czech Republic. “So far there has been no reply from Russia. Therefore, Russian request was neither approved nor rejected,” Havlíček said.
The Lithuanian intelligence services warned in their 2021 threat assessment that Russia might use GLONASS to influence neighboring states with the new unified digital cargo system it has constructed, according to which wares can be inventoried and tracked remotely via satellite. “Russia claims that installing electronic sensors into every vehicle used for transporting cargo will eliminate the need for any other type of inspection,” the Baltic state’s spy agencies concluded. “It is highly likely that one of the main reasons for developing such a system was Russia’s intention to gain control over all cargo transported among Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, China, and the EU.”
The threat assessment further found that Russia could exploit the data from the tracking system as economic leverage against businesses and countries; for instance, in tailoring sanctions against European economies (in retaliation for EU sanctions on Russia) or using less-than-competitive means to advance Russian business interests over European competitors. There was also a risk that the tracking system would allow the Russian armed forces to collect crucial data on Western infrastructure.
At least in part, the commercial usage of GLONASS is intended to cover satellite development costs, according to Daniel Porras, the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications at the Secure World Foundation. Porras believes it is also a soft-power tool with which Russia plans to pitch more countries to adopt its positioning system over the American GPS.
“They’re trying to show that more and more people don’t necessarily trust the United States, are looking for an alternative, and wouldn’t mind signing up to use the GLONASS system,” Porras said.
There’s also a safety-in-numbers approach to Russia’s sales pitch. The more countries dependent on GLONASS, the less likelihood there is for any one of them to try to hack it. “It is very tricky to want to mess with the U.S. GPS system,” Porras told Newlines, “in large part because you don’t know how widespread the implications can be.” Russia, he said, wants in on that deterrent capability.
Another Western intelligence source told Newlines that GLONASS really isn’t a technological service at all but rather a power projection tool, an indicator that Russia, which has lately intervened or invaded a host of foreign countries and portrayed itself as a renascent great power, is once more a global force to be reckoned with. “In reality, Moscow lacks the space infrastructure to be a reliable partner,” the source said. “It’s focused on advancing its own national interest at the expense of other nations.”
Šarunas Cerniauskas contributed to reporting