Yahoo Finance


September 8, 2023


He’s an egomaniacal man-child, but is Elon Musk really the dark lord? Twitter seems to think so. Oh, wait. It was Twitter before Elon Musk bought and ruined it. Now it’s X, a do-everything-satisfy-nobody app that most of its users hate, but use anyway. But that’s not even the worst outrage.

Musk’s latest offense is his decision to cut off Starlink communication services to Ukrainian forces when they attempted a substantial drone attack on Russian ships in the Black Sea, near the occupied Crimean Peninsula. This happened a year ago, but it’s only coming to light now, because historian Walter Isaacson uncovered the episode while researching his new book on Musk, due out Sept. 12.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Musk’s company SpaceX gave hundreds of Starlink terminals to Ukraine, providing troops in the field desperately needed Internet access to aid battlefield communications and help beat back the Russian invaders. SpaceX bore the cost, which Musk estimated at $80 million. Ukrainian commanders praised Musk and said it would be hard to operate without Starlink.

By last September, Ukraine had managed to drive back Russian forces and establish a bit of offensive momentum. One gambit was to send a half-dozen naval drones packed with explosives after Russian ships in the Black Sea. Those drones needed Starlink to navigate to their targets. Musk learned of the effort and told SpaceX engineers to deny Starlink coverage in that part of Crimea. The drones were unable to navigate and washed ashore harmlessly, according to an account Isaacson published in the Washington Post on Sept. 7.

Musk confirmed Isaacson’s story, saying, “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol. The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor.” He didn’t say which government authorities, or even which country, made the request. He declined the request, because “SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

Since he essentially protected Russia’s military capability, Musk’s critics have accused him of collaborating with the barbaric Russians in their war against a European democracy. Anders Ostlund of the Center for European Policy Analysis charged Musk and SpaceX with escalating the war — on Russia’s side — and contributing to the deaths of Ukrainian civilians. Historian Ian Garner called Musk a “maximum Bond level villain.” A pro-Ukraine Twitter account with 67,000 followers dubbed Musk “a witting agent of the Russian Federation.”

But there’s a huge missing piece many of Musk’s critics ought to be aware of: Private-sector corporations and their leaders should not be the ones making decisions about how to aid a US

ally in wartime. Ukrainian forces are using equipment provided by virtually every major US defense contractor, but the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Navistar, and so on aren’t personally making those decisions. Instead, those contractors sell equipment to the US government, which then decides what to do with it.

SpaceX is a contractor to the government, through arrangements with NASA that date back to 2014. But that’s for commercial space flights, not for defense. It appears SpaceX did not have a deal with the Pentagon involving its Starlink satellites when the Ukraine war started, which is why Musk provided that Starlink gear to Ukraine voluntarily.

In April 2022, the US Agency for Intl. Development said it had delivered 5,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine as part of a “public-private partnership” with Ukraine. It didn’t spell out the terms, though. In June of this year, the Pentagon issued a terse statement saying it did finally have a contract with SpaceX to provide Starlink satellite service to Ukraine. It didn’t say when that contract started. It’s also possible, and perhaps likely, that the CIA or some other intelligence service has been making sure Ukraine has uninterrupted Starlink service, given how crucial it is to basic military functionality on the battlefield.

So something is fishy about Musk being able to unilaterally stop Starlink service near Crimea on his own authority last September. If SpaceX was still providing Starlink service to Ukraine on its own dime, seven months into the war, and Musk had sole authority over whether to turn it on or off, then that’s a big mistake that rests with the Biden administration, not with Musk. That would be like the CEO of General Dynamics deciding whether to provide Abrams tanks to Ukraine, rather than the president, the secretary of state, and all the other government decision-makers.

It’s possible SpaceX was under contract to the Pentagon, and Musk still made the decision to turn off the service near Crimea, perhaps in violation of the contract. Musk seems to think world peace depends on him, and Isaacson says the impressionable Musk was influenced by a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States, who told Musk that an attack on Russian-controlled Crimea would elicit a nuclear response from Russia.

That is patently false, given that Ukraine has attacked Crimea many times, and also sunk a Russian missile cruiser in the Black Sea, with no nuclear response. Apparently, Musk naively believed that Russians speak the truth. Biden’s better-seasoned national security team might have been more skeptical of the Russian ambassador’s threat. At any rate, if the CEO of a defense contractor is unilaterally preventing the US government from using a contracted product or service as it sees fit, then it’s up to the customer — the US government — to rectify the situation.

Elon Musk is an important innovator, and he’s even more important in his own mind. He’s irritating and worse, such as when he misleads investors, endorses quackery, and bullies critics. But he’s only beyond reproach if everybody who deals with him allows him to be. A lot of things are bigger and more important than Elon Musk, including the war in Ukraine.


Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance.