Elon Musk, the 52-year-old billionaire of South African origin and founder of SpaceX, deliberated the potential cessation of Starlink satellite internet services in Ukraine. The impetus behind this consideration was his apprehension of being perceived as a catalyst for conflict in Russia. This move was spurred by network outages experienced by Ukrainian forces near the front lines, separating them from Russian occupiers.
Concerns and Negotiations:
Colin Kahl, a former US undersecretary of defense for policy, who held this position until recently, took on the task of mediating to avert Mr. Musk from completely discontinuing the Starlink system. In an interview with The New Yorker, Kahl recounted his discussions with Musk. He emphasized that the termination of Starlink would not bring an end to the ongoing conflict. Kahl suggested that Musk was becoming concerned that Russia would see Starlink’s role as supporting the Ukrainian military effort. Musk sought to address Russian concerns.
Russian Perception and Musk’s Role:
Last year, Musk was accused of promoting a peace proposal that was perceived as favorable to the Kremlin. The proposal suggested that Ukraine should conduct sovereignty referendums similar to those organized by Russia in the occupied regions. Network outages were most pronounced in the Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions. These areas, partly occupied by Russian forces, were subsequently claimed as part of Russia following referendums orchestrated by Russian proxies.
Musk’s Diplomacy and Satellite Terminals:
Mr. Musk informed Pentagon authorities that he had spoken with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, on a personal level. The satellite terminals, donated by SpaceX, the US government, and private contributors, have become indispensable for Ukrainian military communications. These satellite terminals facilitate the coordination of drone and artillery strikes, live battlefield video streaming, and intelligence gathering.
Ethical Dilemma and Defensive Use:
Musk asserted his ability to observe the entire conflict’s progression via the Starlink activity map. The live information gave him pause, raising questions about whether his satellite internet system was being employed for peaceful or wartime purposes. This hesitation was reportedly followed by Musk mentioning a “great conversation with Putin.”
Controlling Offensive Capabilities:
Elon Musk has long harbored reservations about his technology being utilized for offensive purposes. Recent sources claimed that he prevented access to the Starlink network around seized Crimea, forcing Ukraine to cancel a planned naval drone strike in the Black Sea. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s top general, has highlighted the military’s reliance on continuous Starlink access.
Easing Concerns and Financial Implications:
Aides to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky endeavored to allay Musk’s worries by emphasizing that the system is primarily geared towards defense, progress, and survival. The cost of providing the system has also been a point of contention. An estimated figure of nearly $400 million (£310 million) for a 12-month period was reported by CNN.
Pentagon Agreement and Future Implications:
In June, the Pentagon announced an agreement with SpaceX to maintain Starlink’s usage in Ukraine. The exact terms of the agreement remain undisclosed. This pact is perceived as a step towards limiting Musk’s influence on the battlefield as Kyiv’s counter-offensive efforts continue.
Final Statement and Contact:
Representatives of Elon Musk and SpaceX were approached for comment, but no official response has been provided.