Photo via Ukraine Military Center
On September 14, following the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography entitled “Elon Musk,” the Senate Armed Services Committee called for an investigation into Starlink’s apparent intervention in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Starlink, an offshoot of SpaceX, offers high-speed internet to numerous countries. The company deals with the manufacturing and launching of spacecrafts, with its ultimate goal being to colonize Mars. At present, however, Starlink primarily aims at servicing remote areas through a massive network of small satellites in low Earth orbit. It covers all of Western Europe, most of the Americas, and numerous other locations including the Philippines, Kenya, and Mozambique. Its reach is only growing, with the company planning to amass 42,000 satellites within a few years.
In his biography, Isaacson revealed that in 2022, Musk blocked Starlink’s satellite from reaching Sevastopol, Crimea in an effort to block Ukrainian submarine drones from attacking a fleet of Russian warships. The author later amended this, saying that this account misinterpreted Musk’s words. Isaacson and Musk now claim that the company’s satellites were never active on the Crimean coast, and that Musk merely refused Ukraine’s request to extend coverage for the purpose of military action.
By way of justifying this refusal, Musk said he hoped to evade a “mini-Pearl Harbor” from occurring in the area, an event he believed would have prompted Russia to retaliate with nuclear weapons. He explained that his intention was to remain uninvolved in the conflict, stating on X (formerly known as Twitter) that if he “had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.” If Musk had disabled the satellite, he would have been interfering in the war and acting on his own discretion; he instead chose non-action. Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, reinforced the statement that Starlink was “never intended to be weaponized.” Rather, its purpose in supporting Ukraine was to provide humanitarian aid in the war.
Musk later commented at the All-In Summit that he would have complied with the Ukrainian government if he was ordered to by U.S. President Joseph Biden. Musk retaliated against accusations of treason on X, saying that he would “fight for and die in America” and that “the United States has not declared war on Russia.” Furthermore, the reason why there was no satellite coverage over Crimea in the first place was because Musk was obeying U.S. sanctions against Russia. If Musk had extended coverage over Crimea, Russia may have seen it as an act of war committed by the United States, as SpaceX is an American company closely involved in a private-public partnership with the government. This, of course, can only be speculated. Though the U.S. is obviously pro-Ukraine, Musk would have been acting without the government’s approval if he had enabled coverage for the specific purpose of destroying a fleet. It is safe to say that by choosing not to act, Musk committed no act of treason.
The morality of his refusal is also being questioned. Mykhailo Podolyak, the advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, condemned Musk’s decision to not interfere, alleging that it had allowed the Russian fleet to fire missiles at Ukrainian cities, causing the deaths of countless civilians and children. It is important to note that this statement was released prior to the amendment of the incident, so Podolyak’s stance may have changed. However, in another post on X, he said Starlink had “helped us survive the most critical moments of war.”
The argument that Musk committed a war crime is without merit. For example, if one were to follow this line of logic, Switzerland would then be a major war criminal for its continuous decision to remain neutral.
Due to Starlink’s unrivaled technological capacity, governments rely immensely on the company—which leaves them vulnerable. The chief of the Main Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, has said, “Absolutely all front lines are using [Starlink systems]… they have played and continue to play a significant role.” Currently, 42,000 terminals are being used by Ukraine for its military operations, hospitals, aid organizations, and by its civilians. At any point, Musk could revoke access on a whim or for budgetary reasons (which he has threatened to do before). The awareness of this has provoked the Pentagon to sign a contract with Starlink, though the provisions of the arrangement are unknown. Regardless of whether it was an act of non-intervention or a play at God, it must be acknowledged that Musk wields an inordinate amount of power that needs to be countered or diminished.
This article was edited by Zachary Bader and Katherine Hohman.