In a recent article published by the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow outlines Elon Musk’s influence on the U.S. government and the Ukraine war through the use of his SpaceX Starlink internet hardware.
In an article titled “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule,” published by the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow details the influence of Elon Musk and his companies on the Ukraine war due to the Ukrainian military’s extensive use of SpaceX Starlink internet hardware to communicate on the battlefield.
In October 2022, Colin Kahl, then the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, called Musk to discuss SpaceX’s role in providing internet access across Ukraine.
The reason soon became apparent. “Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had on this issue,” Kahl told me. SpaceX, Musk’s space-exploration company, had for months been providing Internet access across Ukraine, allowing the country’s forces to plan attacks and to defend themselves. But, in recent days, the forces had found their connectivity severed as they entered territory contested by Russia. More alarmingly, SpaceX had recently given the Pentagon an ultimatum: if it didn’t assume the cost of providing service in Ukraine, which the company calculated at some four hundred million dollars annually, it would cut off access. “We started to get a little panicked,” the senior defense official, one of four who described the standoff to me, recalled. Musk “could turn it off at any given moment. And that would have real operational impact for the Ukrainians.”
Musk became involved in the Ukraine conflict after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. The Kremlin was launching cyberattacks on Ukraine’s digital infrastructure and Ukrainian officials and tech expatriates discussed potential solutions in group chats on WhatsApp and Signal. They identified SpaceX’s Starlink, a line of mobile Internet terminals, as a possible solution.
Starlink’s dishes, mounted on tripods, connect to a satellite network. The units have limited range, which was beneficial in this case, as it would be challenging for Russia to entirely disrupt Ukrainian connectivity, however, Musk could do so if he chose. Three individuals involved in bringing Starlink to Ukraine, who spoke anonymously due to concerns that Musk might withdraw his services if displeased, said they initially didn’t consider the implications of his personal control. One Ukrainian tech executive said, “Nobody thought about it back then. It was all about ‘Let’s go, people are dying.’”
However, Musk’s support appeared to eventually come to an end, Farrow reports:
Initially, Musk showed unreserved support for the Ukrainian cause, responding encouragingly as Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian minister for digital transformation, tweeted pictures of equipment in the field. But, as the war ground on, SpaceX began to balk at the cost. “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. (CNBC recently valued SpaceX at nearly a hundred and fifty billion dollars. Forbes estimated Musk’s personal net worth at two hundred and twenty billion dollars, making him the world’s richest man.)
Musk was also growing increasingly uneasy with the fact that his technology was being used for warfare. That month, at a conference in Aspen attended by business and political figures, Musk even appeared to express support for Vladimir Putin. “He was onstage, and he said, ‘We should be negotiating. Putin wants peace—we should be negotiating peace with Putin,’ ” Reid Hoffman, who helped start PayPal with Musk, recalled. Musk seemed, he said, to have “bought what Putin was selling, hook, line, and sinker.”
Since that time, Musk has become selective about what Starlink can be used for in Ukraine. Breitbart News reported earlier this month that he denied access to Starlink for a drone attack:
According to a report from the New York Times, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, recently raised concerns over Musk’s influence over the war with Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, after the latest refusal to assist in a long-distance offensive strike against a Russian ship off the coast of Crimea.
The paper claimed, citing unnamed people “familiar with the situation”, that Musk has restricted access to Starlink on multiple different occasions during the war and that such decisions are the sole discretion of the SpaceX chief. In addition to blocking internet access to facilitate a sea drone attack against the Russian Navy, Starlink has also reportedly been blocked off for Ukrainian forces attempting to recapture territory from the Russians in the Donbas region with geofencing limits being placed around the area.
Earlier this year, Mr Musk said on Twitter: “We are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.”
Read more at the New Yorker here.
Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan