Elon Musk, the co-founder of SpaceX, reportedly prevented Ukraine from using his company’s Starlink satellite communications system to launch an attack on Russian ships in 2022. According to the New York Times (NYT), SpaceX had donated over 20,000 Starlink satellite terminals to Ukraine since the escalation of the conflict with Russia in late February 2022, providing internet access in chaotic battleground areas. However, the NYT claims that Ukraine sought to weaponize the communications system, specifically to launch a maritime drone and strike Russian ships docked at Black Sea ports.
Musk refused Ukraine’s request to grant its forces access to Starlink near Crimea to facilitate the attack. In a tweet in mid-February, Musk stated that SpaceX would not enable the escalation of a conflict that may lead to World War III and that Starlink would not be used for long-range drone strikes. He also expressed concerns about the risks of a global conflict, noting that many people seem oblivious to the danger.
The NYT also reports that SpaceX restricted access to its Starlink systems based on frontline changes. The company used location data gathered by its service to enforce certain limits on satellite communication access. This policy supposedly caused problems during Kiev’s counteroffensive attempts.
Starlink was initially praised by Ukraine and the US as a gamechanger for the Ukrainian military, providing a reliable communications system that Russia allegedly could not disrupt through hacking. However, tensions between Elon Musk and Ukrainian officials grew over time. In autumn 2022, Musk announced that SpaceX could no longer cover the Starlink operation costs in Ukraine out of its own pocket. He revealed that the effort would cost $20 million a month and could not be sustained indefinitely.
In October 2022, Musk proposed a peace plan that would have required Ukraine to make concessions to Russia. This suggestion further angered Ukrainian officials, with one of President Vladimir Zelensky’s aides demanding that Musk either side with Ukraine and refrain from seeking ways to do harm, or be seen as pro-Russian.
Despite the strained relationship, in June of this year, the Pentagon announced that it had awarded a contract to SpaceX for Starlink satellite communications services in Ukraine. The details of the deal were not disclosed by the US Department of Defense, citing operational security reasons and the critical nature of these systems.
However, the NYT also reports that around 1,300 Starlink terminals in Ukraine stopped working after Kiev failed to pay the $2,500 monthly fee for each. In December 2022, Ukraine secured additional funding from European backers to cover the system’s costs.
The incident highlights the complex dynamics between technology companies and geopolitical conflicts, with Musk’s decision to restrict access to Starlink for military purposes raising questions about the potential weaponization of satellite systems. It also underscores the importance of reliable and secure communication systems in conflict zones and the challenges associated with providing such systems in unpredictable and fluid environments.