Picture the ultimate armchair general: A tech bro billionaire, sitting in his penthouse swilling Diet Coke, deciding whether troops in Ukraine live or die with the flick of a hand.
It’s real. It’s happening. It’s Elon Musk.
In recent days, Ukraine has successfully attacked a Russian amphibious assault ship and a tanker delivering fuel to military ports. The startling success of remote-controlled explosive speedboats has derailed President Vladimir Putin’s plans to impose a naval blockade on Ukrainian grain exports.
It could have happened a year ago.
But Elon Musk wouldn’t allow it.
Musk has supplied Ukraine with thousands of Starlink internet terminals and dishes to access its constellation since the war began in February 2022. The network’s reach, reliability and speed under combat conditions have been a marketing bonanza.
But it’s also seen Musk labelled a “war criminal” by Russia’s Kremlin-controlled propagandists.
Now, The New York Times has confirmed that the erratic Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter CEO denied Ukraine access to his Starlink satellite constellation network when planning a similar assault last year.
Musk himself has admitted as much.
“SpaceX Starlink has become the connectivity backbone of Ukraine all the way up to the front lines. This is the damned if you do part,” he tweeted in February.
“However, we are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes. This is the damned if you don’t part.”
Giving a billionaire the power of life or death poses a severe ethical and legal crisis.
“The shifting tide of Musk’s support highlights the risks of direct supply of critical technology to warzones by commercial actors,” noted a report by the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.
Drone boat assault
Crimea was seized by Russian troops in 2014. It’s now serving as a central military staging post and logistics hub in its invasion of Ukraine. It’s also home to one of a series of major Russian Black Sea naval bases.
Ukraine is fighting to win it back.
Starlink coms units are a vital link in the chain between Ukraine’s soldiers and thousands of drones operating on the front lines. These have proven crucial in halting Russia’s armoured advance.
But Ukrainian officials said in September that Musk had ruled Crimea out of bounds for Starlink access, stating he feared it would “escalate” the conflict.
And that’s a problem for Ukraine’s disruptive use of small, cheap explosive drone boats against Russia’s large and valuable warships.
They’re blockading Ukrainian waters.
And now that Putin has abandoned an international deal allowing Ukrainian grain to be distributed among world markets, he’s planning to enforce a blockade.
Ukraine, which has no functional navy of its own, must rely on its innovative internet-controlled fleet of long-range drone boats to break that blockade.
On Friday, a Ukrainian drone boat penetrated Russian defences. It severely damaged the assault ship Olenegorsky Gornyak, which is believed to have been deployed to provide troops to board and seize grain ships operating in the Black Sea. The following day, the Russian tanker Sig was hit while transiting the Kerch Strait.
Ukraine’s internet provider of choice for the attacks is yet to be revealed.
The internet of war
There are 4000 Starlink satellites in orbit. It plans to eventually boost this number to 7500. And while they are blotting out the sky to Earth-bound astronomers, the constellations are providing reliable internet access to remote areas across the globe.
It’s such a success that China has embarked on a project to flood low-Earth orbit with its own network. But, as of yet, no competitor comes close to Starlink’s coverage.
However, this monopoly has given the private billionaire unprecedented influence over Ukraine’s war against the Russian invaders.
Last year, Musk proposed a peace plan which would have resulted in Kyiv surrendering most of its eastern provinces to Moscow.
And SpaceX chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said Starlink “was never intended to be weaponised”, and “our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes”.
“Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement, so we have to work on that at Starlink,” she said in February.
“I’m not going to go into the details; there are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that … there are things that we can do and have done,” Shotwell reportedly added.
Precisely what has been done remains unknown.
“It is not yet clear how this decision will impact the performance of the Ukrainian military, but it is likely to have consequences,” the Belfer report stated.
The Times states that global militaries have since expressed concern that Musk’s “erratic and personality-driven style” may be detrimental to the conduct of the war.
And Ukrainian officials are reportedly scrabbling to access whatever other satellite coverage they can obtain from his competitors.
Musk, meanwhile, has been exploiting Ukraine’s military success.
“When a single company – or technology billionaire – claims the spotlight, there can be a heavy attribution of success to a commercial product or person,” the Belfer report argued. “Starlink undoubtedly provided a stage for Musk to showcase the power and value of his technology, which just happened to be well timed as the company raised another capital round.”
To bro, or not to bro …
“The Starlink case highlights the pitfalls of being beholden to a single commercial company for such critical communication infrastructure during conflict,” the Belfer report stated.
“SpaceX is part of a trend that cannot be ignored, especially as public sector leaders and stakeholders plan for future crisis response – whether it is for a crisis or war they are part of or supporting.
“It is imperative that we act swiftly to update our procurement and response systems as more private companies own the development and deployment of critical technology.”
The Chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, reportedly contacted the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in March this year to raise concerns over Musk’s interference in his military operations.
He conceded his troops had become reliant on Starlink. He wanted to guarantee access to the service regardless of Musk’s mood swings.
Last month, the Pentagon announced it had purchased extra SpaceX Starlink satellite terminals and accounts for use in Ukraine, suggesting the issue had been addressed.
“We continue to work with a range of global partners to ensure Ukraine has the satellite and communication capabilities they need. Satellite communications constitute a vital layer in Ukraine’s overall communications network, and the department contracts with Starlink for services of this type,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
“For operational security reasons and due to the critical nature of these systems — we do not have additional information regarding specific capabilities, contracts or partners to provide at this time.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel