Turns out Elon Musk isn’t a dependable ally.
Nov 20, 2022
Olga Boichak and Tetyana Lokot
On Oct. 3, tech billionaire Elon Musk tweeted a strikingly ill-informed proposal to end Russia’s war in Ukraine—one that experts called both unhelpful and straight out of the Kremlin playbook. Among other measures, Musk suggested Ukraine cede Crimea to Russia and hold elections in other Russian-occupied territories. Faced with tremendous backlash from the public, including many Ukrainians, Musk on Oct. 14 announced his intention to stop supporting Starlink operations in the country and demanded the Pentagon pick up the bill. Then, in yet another tweet on Oct. 16, he reversed this decision, writing, “The hell with it; we’ll just keep funding the Ukraine government for free.”
Musk’s flippant statements came in stark contrast to his previously constructive relationship with Ukrainian authorities. In the days following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, Musk agreed to supply Ukraine with Starlink satellite internet technology—built by his company SpaceX—to ensure data connectivity for the country’s armed forces and civilians in regions that had experienced Russian cyberattacks or infrastructural damage.
Starlink is broadband satellite-enabled internet that provides connectivity without reliance on fiberoptic cables or mobile networks. Starlink terminals are compact antennas that can be installed on rooftops, cars, or even in the middle of fields—all they need is unobstructed access to the sky. The smartphone-operated hardware, which includes a terminal antenna and a Wi-Fi router, costs just under $600 and works in all weather conditions. Users pay a monthly subscription fee, and membership can be transferred to a new account securely to prevent device theft.
Of the roughly 20,000 Starlink terminals now in Ukraine, fewer than 20 percent have been donated by SpaceX. The rest have been funded by the U.S., U.K., and Polish governments; purchased by the Ukrainian military; and crowdfunded by activists and volunteers. Even though the technology is intended for civilian use, it has helped provide Ukraine’s military with a decisive advantage over Russia.
Now, Musk—the world’s richest man—claims his company is losing $20 million a month launching and maintaining Starlink satellites and having to maintain “ground stations and pay telcos for access to Internet via gateways” in Ukraine. Musk has said that fewer than 11,000 of the Starlink terminals in use in Ukraine are paying the subscription fee. He has also lamented having to fight Russian cyberattacks and signal jamming. It’s not clear which terminals Musk’s decision-making would affect given that SpaceX is also involved in maintenance of non-donated terminals, and his contradictory tweets have caused waves of uncertainty and protest
in Ukraine. This chaos has crystallized an important lesson: Powerful private actors are not reliable allies in Ukraine’s battle to preserve its territorial integrity and build a resilient internet.
Ever since it illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Russia has weaponized internet connectivity in Ukraine. Instead of fully destroying occupied territories’ internet and mobile infrastructure, Russia has gradually subsumed it—seizing mobile base stations and internet service provider facilities, rerouting Ukrainian internet traffic through Russian exchange points, and laying a new undersea cable to Crimea in 2014. This means that Ukrainians in occupied territories often find themselves in an information ecosystem that distorts the reality of the war through misinformation, filtering, and sanitized Russian content. Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territories are effectively subject to the same digital restrictions that have long distorted Russian citizens’ information reality.
As our research into the role of everyday technologies in wartime resistance, supported by the University of Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, demonstrates, one of Ukraine’s key war aims has been to preserve a resilient information and communications space for its military and civilians. So far, the country has relied on support from diplomatic allies, volunteers, and tech companies such as SpaceX.
On the battlefield, Starlink has become the ultimate symbol of network-centric warfare: the doctrine that the awareness and agility achieved through mobile and wireless communications can create an informational—and military—advantage. The Ukrainian armed forces’ use of Starlink has enabled efficient coordination among its geographically dispersed units that has in turn allowed them to take down conventional forces in the large Russian army. Starlink, for example, can help operate unmanned aerial vehicles to determine the locations of adversary units. It also affords a secure wireless connection for real-time tactical communications.
Starlink has become a lifeline for Ukrainian civilians, too—especially for those living in territories that have borne the brunt of Russian assaults on critical infrastructure. On April 7, Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, alluded to how the technology helped the village of Ivankiv, in Kyiv oblast, which had been liberated from Russian control days before. “Operation of electricity and mobile communications has not been yet restored,” Fedorov wrote on Twitter, “but Starlink came on time. Locals finally are able to tell relatives that they are alive.” He shared an image of a crowd of locals clustered around a Starlink terminal in the village square with their devices. Starlink has reportedly also been used to provide wireless internet in school bomb shelters for students.
Fedorov and his colleagues have been enthusiastic in mobilizing tech companies’ support for Ukraine’s resistance effort and have publicly thanked Musk for his assistance. Fedorov himself has called Starlink “an essential element of our critical infrastructure.” However, even Fedorov’s public diplomacy has wavered in the wake of the billionaire’s changing stance on the war. According to some reports, connectivity in some areas close to the front line has been “catastrophically” spotty, with Musk claiming Russia was actively trying to destroy Starlink technology in Ukraine. A more recent CNN report said that more than 1,300 Starlink terminals used by the Ukrainian military were taken offline in late October, with the outage attributed to a
“lack of funding.” Musk has also reportedly refused to provide Starlink coverage on the Crimean peninsula, fearing further escalation of the war and Russia’s nuclear threats.
Musk’s mercurial internet persona and the inconsistency of his support for Starlink terminals in Ukraine expose the disadvantages of relying on private actors for sustainable connectivity solutions in a rapidly changing geopolitical climate. Fighting wars has always involved gaining control over the enemy’s communication infrastructure, and we can expect adversarial connectivity to be an issue in future armed conflicts. Building a truly resilient internet requires states to invest in reliable infrastructure and modern cyberdefense that is proofed against attacks by adversaries—and contradictory takes from uninformed Twitter users.
Starlink in its current form is an unreliable source of connectivity for Ukraine because it is procured on an ad hoc basis and is not governed by a legal structure. Dean Bellamy, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and executive vice president of national security space at Redwire, said SpaceX’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war is an example of a corporate actor “not operating under a government contract but affecting policy and making decisions that could affect the outcome of a conflict.” Yuriy Butusov, president of the All-Ukrainian Fund for Strengthening National Security, a nonprofit that supports Ukraine’s armed forces, has called for solving this problem by officially integrating Starlink into Ukraine’s command-and-control structures, equipping every unit commander and every headquarters with a terminal. This would require a comprehensive long-term contract between SpaceX and Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation to provide Ukraine with sustainable guarantees for technical support and uninterrupted service.
Such a contract would provide transparency about aspects of Starlink’s footprint in Ukraine that are currently unclear: how many terminals are in the country, how they are funded, and what their costs of maintenance and subscription are. It would also require SpaceX to make significant infrastructural investments in Ukraine. Ideally, there would be a network of repair facilities that could service Ukraine-based Starlink equipment, as well as systems in place to identify unauthorized connection attempts by adversaries.
Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon press secretary, has said that Starlink is not the only possible solution for Ukraine’s wartime connectivity gap and that a range of alternate technologies is available on the global market. In an Oct. 15 briefing, Singh told reporters that there were “certainly other satcom capabilities that exist out there” and that the Pentagon was exploring multiple options for supporting Ukraine’s satellite-enabled communications. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research wing of the U.S. military, has been working on the development of a network similar to Starlink—called Blackjack—for a number of years and successfully deployed two satellites in June 2021. The U.S. Space Development Agency also reportedly plans to launch a large satellite constellation with distributed sensors to aid in missile tracking and other military efforts.
Speaking at a press conference on Nov. 3, Fedorov said the Ukrainian government, too, was searching for alternative satellite communication tools to support Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure. Fedorov disclosed that Ukrainian authorities were “also using other satellite communication tools” and were “working with other operators, not only SpaceX.”
Ukraine has already been cooperating with Iceye, a Finnish provider of remote satellite-imaging services. Other satellite providers working in Ukraine, such as U.S. company Viasat, have also expressed their readiness to help the country secure sustainable connectivity. Craig Miller, Viasat’s president of government systems, wrote in an Oct. 14 LinkedIn post that the company was “providing broadband for humanitarian and rescue operations throughout the crisis, and stand ready to provide expanded services for Ukraine, the U.S. and our allies.” Experts note, however, that there are few solutions that can compete with Starlink in terms of coverage, affordability, accessibility, and mobility.
Given Musk’s erratic track record as an entrepreneur, ill-informed public statements, and ever-changing opinions about his role in Russia’s war on Ukraine, it is difficult to call him a reliable ally. Ukraine can and must search for alternative solutions to Starlink and manage these relationships through longer-term government procurement contracts to stabilize its internet connectivity for civilians and the military.
In an ideal world, Ukraine would build its own secure communications infrastructure. But this is a costly endeavor—one that even more well-off states would struggle to implement and which Kyiv can hardly afford at the moment. Ukraine’s battle for sustainable connectivity is one for the long haul—and one that demands working with companies whose technologies can provide the country with stable long-term support. Until these are found, the world will continue to watch Musk’s Twitter feed and hope for the best.
Olga Boichak is a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, where she leads the Computational Social Science Lab. She is an editor of the Digital War journal and a frequent commentator on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Tetyana Lokot is an associate professor in digital media and society at the School of Communications at Dublin City University, where she researches internet freedom and governance in Eastern Europe. She is the author of Beyond the Protest Square: Digital Media and Augmented Dissent.