THE UKRAINIAN MILITARY IS RELIANT ON STARLINK internet provided by SpaceX. In other words, the world’s richest man has the power to screw up the operations of Europe’s second-largest army at any moment.
How we got to the supremely weird place of Elon Musk controlling Ukraine’s battlefield communications from half a world away is an interesting story.
It goes something like this: Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, dispatching armed “little green men” from its military to the country’s east without identifying insignia while repeatedly lying to the world about it. Those Russian troops helped shoot down a civilian airliner carrying 298 people and fueled an astroturfed uprising that killed tens of thousands more. By 2015, Russia had illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Two international peace agreements were negotiated but ultimately failed to end what had evolved into a bitter World War I-style trench war.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and resorted to its usual wartime playbook of attacking civilians and critical infrastructure. Rightly fearing Russia would intercept their calls, Ukrainian civilians flocked to the encrypted Signal messaging app. So did soldiers.
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As the Russians jammed the hell out of Ukraine’s military radios, Signal emerged as a secure alternative to coordinate air strikes, share intel from the treeline to targeters, and call friends without fearing a cruise missile strike.
Starlink internet is now the backbone of Ukraine’s ad-hoc military command-and-control network. Aside from powering defenders’ voice and text chats, Signal and other internet apps are used to target Russian positions with artillery. And Starlink can even claim credit for helping counter Russian propaganda and supporting Ukraine’s information war: a drone can kill one Russian soldier, but video of the act is used to kill Russian morale.
SO WHY ARE UKRAINE and its western allies questioning Musk’s reliability?
On Oct. 3, Musk provoked outrage after proposing a peace plan on Twitter that called for Ukraine to cede territory illegally seized by Russia in a bid to end the war. It was a strange idea for a country whose Army had, only a month earlier, broken the attrition-style warfare that Russia preferred and turned the tide in a stunning counteroffensive, pushing demoralized Russian troops some 200 miles closer to their own homes. Notably, Musk has suggested this peace proposal for weeks and has shared Kremlin talking points with his 100 million+ followers.
Meanwhile, geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer says that Musk spoke with Putin before floating the deal “and [Musk] told me Putin (in a direct conversation with him) was ‘prepared to negotiate.’” Bremmer stood by the reporting even after Musk denied it.
It’s a game of he said, she said: one man is an intellectual who wows Economist readers with insightful analysis of Vladimir Putin, and the other is a wildly successful entrepreneur and investor whom a federal judge found had lied about considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share in 2018, which led to a jump in the stock price and a securities fraud charge that Musk settled for a $40 million fine and other penalties.
“[T]he three August 7, 2018 statements,” wrote Judge Edward Chen in an Oct. 13 order finding three of Musk’s tweets, “were false and that Mr. Musk recklessly made those representations.”
“Putin does this frequently,” said Hill, a former top National Security Council official, noting that she had personally spoken with business intermediaries of the Russian president when she was in government.
“He uses prominent people as intermediaries to feel out the general political environment, to basically test how people are going to react to ideas…” she said. “He is basically short-circuiting the diplomatic process. He wants to lay out his terms and see how many people are going to pick them up. All of this is an effort to get Americans to take themselves out of the war and hand over Ukraine and Ukrainian territory to Russia.”
This all before news broke on Oct. 14 that SpaceX had sent a letter in September to the Pentagon requesting it take over funding the cost of operating Starlink in Ukraine. Musk complained about the annual cost to provide Starlink service in Ukraine—roughly 0.045% of his estimated net worth—before reversing himself a day later.
“The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free,” Musk tweeted on Oct. 15.
So anyway, the Ukrainians’ battlefield edge is now a huge vulnerability.
“For the time being, let’s be happy that he is paying for it. But we need to be on the safe side,” a European Union official told Financial Times. “The Ukrainians are very worried that he will still cut it off.”
Eddy Etue, a U.S. Marine veteran serving with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force in southern Ukraine:
“I think his almost immediate backpedaling and commitment to pay says he’s not as out of touch as we thought he was,” Etue told me of Musk while observing Iranian kamikaze drones crashing into nearby buildings.
Asked what would happen if Starlink were cut off, Etue said, “It will just be shitty cell signal for both sides. We’d lose the high-speed interweb advantage.”
Doug Livermore, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer and non-resident fellow at the Joint Special Operations University and Irregular Warfare Initiative:
“SpaceX was able to rapidly provide communications support at a critical time in March/April when the U.S. government was struggling to respond. Arguably, the speed with which the private sector, exemplified by SpaceX, was able to respond shows the real advantage of the ‘private’ part of these partnerships,” said Livermore. “However, it also shows the danger, as private industries are vulnerable to profit margins and other external actors.”
Joe Cirincione, a longtime national security analyst and author:
“I love my Tesla, but Musk is methodically destroying his brand,” Cirincione said in reply to a tweet Musk later deleted. “How can you have confidence in his companies when he regularly publishes unhinged, [uninformed] rants flirting with fascism?”
Peter W. Singer, a national security strategist and military consultant:
“The richest man in the world and the former and maybe next president of the United States have repeatedly advocated the policy positions of the two biggest authoritarian foes of the U.S.” said Singer, meaning Russia and China.
“The National Security community and media just can’t seem to wrap their heads around this shift. And even more, what it means for the future of both U.S. politics and security. No single weapons program, no matter how awesome, is more important to our national security and democracy than how we deal with the larger issues of authoritarian threats to and influence on our politics.”