Last week, America delivered a new round of economic sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle for interfering in the U.S. elections, attacking Russia’s neighbors, and ramping up the conflict in Syria. Russia vows to retaliate and has a history of doing so, sometimes hitting back harder. With its economy quickly shrinking, the desperate country could aim for the U.S.’ vulnerabilities this time.
After the sanctions announcement, Deputy Head of the Russian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee Andrei Klimov said, ‘This is an unfriendly act and we must respond, whether we do that tit-for-tat or in some other way is something we need to think about. The harm inflicted should be comparable.” He went on to suggest that areas like U.S. nuclear power and aerospace could be targeted.
Russia has labeled prior retaliations against the United States as “reciprocal,” implying that they are an exact response. Klimov has backed such a policy in other sanctions disputes with the U.S. Given how damaging the economic sanctions have been—the Russian economy has lost 42.47 percent of its value since 2013—Russia’s revenge could be particularly nasty.
First, there’s nuclear power retaliation. This wouldn’t be like the Cold War, when Russia pointed missiles at the United States as a show of intimidation. This version will primarily involve hacking to steal U.S. nuclear secrets, and perhaps some online sabotage.
This has already happened on a lower scale. Earlier this year, Russia hacked U.S. government entities as well as companies in the energy, nuclear, commercial facilities, water, aviation, and manufacturing sectors. Luckily, the hackers only went after data and didn’t shut down the main control. But they also tested American cybernetic capabilities. Such an attack on entities like the U.S. electrical grid could be a dry-run for hacking U.S. nuclear power plants.
Russia is also building a nuclear reactor in the former Soviet Union member nation Belarus. This new reactor has Europeans terrified, especially because Chernobyl, the Soviet reactor in Ukraine, experienced a meltdown in 1986 and spread toxic radiation throughout the region.
Putin has used nuclear power to scare Europeans and Americans before. Recently, he showed Russia’s parliament a video featuring animation of a wave of missiles striking South Florida. But Russia doesn’t need to launch a lot of missiles at the U.S. to have a devastating effect—America doesn’t have the capability to shoot down a Russian missile like the one the U.S. has dubbed “Satan 2.”
Nuclear targets aren’t Russia’s only option. America’s aerospace industry is next on Russia’s list.
America has top-notch astronauts and scientists, but it still uses Russia for transportation. For decades, America has utilized the Russian RD-180 rocket engines for its national security satellite launches. U.S. attempts to build an alternative to this failed, and its dependence on Russia remained constant; more costs were sunk into the Space Shuttle, and nobody worried about how reliant America was on Russian equipment and technology. New congressional appropriations seek the design and development of a new rocket engine, but it could take years for this to come to fruition.
To wean itself off Russia, the U.S. is slowly transitioning to privately-held American companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Both of these corporations are frequently launching and have plans to expand their space operations. But both are startups and rocketry is inherently risky, so a single crash could halt operations for an extended period of time. For example, after an accident killed a pilot, Virgin Galactic pushed back timelines for future launch operations.
And just as Russia employed hackers to penetrate America’s infrastructure and may target nuclear power, its spy satellites could be used for surveillance or actual attacks, though the country denies having any desire to do such a thing.
There are good reasons that America unleashed sanctions on Russia, and those sanctions should not be lifted. But knowledge of how Russia is likely to retaliate will help the U.S. prepare for any resulting consequences.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.