Elon Musk’s SpaceX deliberately blocked the operation of the Starlink satellite Internet, which manifested itself on the battlefield in Ukraine in 2012, writes The New Yorker.
The billionaire joined the effort to help Ukraine shortly after Russia’s invasion last February. At that time, along with conventional offensive actions, the Kremlin was launching cyberattacks on Ukrainian digital infrastructure. Starlink was chosen as a potential solution in this situation.
The tripod-mounted dishes are connected to a network of satellites. The devices have a limited range, but this has become their advantage, as it would be difficult for Russia to completely block Ukrainian communications.
Despite the significant advantages of this decision, no one thought about the significance that Elon Musk’s personal control could potentially have. According to three people involved in the arrival of Starlink in Ukraine, at that time, thoughts were around the death of people and the need to act.
In the months that followed, thousands of pieces of Starlink equipment were transferred to Ukraine. Mykola, a Ukrainian soldier who was responsible for maintaining access to Starlink on the front line, called it an important basis for communication on the battlefield.
At first, Elon Musk demonstrated unconditional support for the Ukrainian cause, but later SpaceX began to question the price.
“We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” SpaceX’s director of government sales told the Pentagon in a letter, last September.
Elon Musk has also become increasingly concerned about the fact that his technology is being used to wage war. At a conference in Aspen, attended by businessmen and politicians, he even expressed support for Vladimir Putin and called for negotiations. Reid Hoffman, who co-founded PayPal with Elon Musk, said that he seems to have “bought what Putin was selling, hook, line, and sinker.”
Shortly thereafter, the billionaire posted on Twitter a proposal for his own peace plan, which included new referendums to redraw Ukraine’s borders and give Russia control of Crimea.
In addition, he portrayed the seemingly inevitable outcome in favor of Russia and conducted a poll among his subscribers about this plan. The majority spoke out against Elon Musk’s idea.
Nevertheless, his sympathies began to show on the battlefield. One day, Ukrainian troops advancing in the south suddenly found themselves without communication. According to the soldier Mykola, they were very close to the front line.
“We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working.” The consequences were immediate. “Communications became dead, units were isolated. When you’re on offense, especially for commanders, you need a constant stream of information from battalions. Commanders had to drive to the battlefield to be in radio range, risking themselves,” Mykola said. “It was chaos.”
Another Ukrainian involved told that he was “awoken by a dozen calls saying they’d lost connectivity and had to retreat.”
The Financial Times reported that the outage affected units in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. U.S. and Ukrainian officials believe that SpaceX interrupted communications through geofencing, limiting access areas.
A series of meetings were held to resolve the situation. Musk’s special role created unusual challenges. The Pentagon would need to reach a contractual agreement with SpaceX so that, at the very least, Musk “could not wake up one morning and just decide that he no longer wants to do this.”
“It was kind of a way for us to lock in services across Ukraine. It could at least prevent Musk from turning off the switch altogether,” explained former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl.
It was he who persuaded Elon Musk not to turn off Starlink in Ukraine. The billionaire was not immediately convinced.
“My inference was that he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concerns,” added Colin Kahl.
Nevertheless, Elon Musk agreed to give the Pentagon more time. He also dropped his threats to stop the service. In June of this year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it had reached an agreement with SpaceX.