Elon Musk Acknowledges Withholding Starlink Service to Thwart Ukrainian Attack

A top adviser to Ukraine’s president accused Elon Musk of enabling Russian aggression, after the billionaire entrepreneur acknowledged denying satellite internet service in order to prevent a Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian naval fleet last year.

The Starlink satellite internet service, which is operated by Mr. Musk’s rocket company SpaceX, has been a digital lifeline in Ukraine since the early days of the war for both civilians and soldiers in areas where digital infrastructure has been wiped out.

On Thursday, CNN reported on an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s upcoming biography “Elon Musk,” later published by The Washington Post, that said the billionaire had ordered the deactivation of Starlink satellite service near the coast of Crimea last September to thwart the Ukrainian attack. The excerpt said that Mr. Musk had conversations with a Russian official that led him to worry that an attack on Crimea could spiral into a nuclear conflict.

Later on Thursday, Mr. Musk responded on his social media platform to say that he hadn’t disabled the service but had rather refused to comply with an emergency request from Ukrainian officials to enable Starlink connections to Sevastopol on the occupied Crimean peninsula. That was in effect an acknowledgment that he had made the decision to prevent a Ukrainian attack.

“The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

That drew an angry response from Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Mr. Musk’s “interference,” he said, had allowed Russia’s naval fleet to continue firing cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities.

“As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego,” he wrote on X.

The account in the biography further confirms the ways in which Mr. Musk’s control over Starlink appears to be affecting Ukraine’s military. In July, The New York Times reported on Mr. Musk’s refusal to allow the service to work near Crimea, and the broader challenges Ukrainian officials were facing because of the country’s huge dependence on Starlink.

Within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Mr. Musk sent Starlink terminals to the country in response to public pleas from Ukrainian officials. Throughout the war, the connectivity provided by Starlink has been pivotal for Ukraine to coordinate drone strikes and gather intelligence.

The more than 42,000 Starlink terminals are also in use by hospitals, businesses and aid organizations across Ukraine.

But Mr. Musk has repeatedly stoked controversy around access to Starlink, saying last October that he could not “indefinitely” finance Ukraine’s use of Starlink, then abruptly reversing course. The near-total control that he wields over connectivity in the war zone has prompted concern about his influence.

In February, Ukrainian officials were angered after a SpaceX executive said that Starlink had taken steps to curtail the Ukrainian military’s use of the technology to control drones, a week after Mr. Musk said the company was “not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.” SpaceX has also used a process called geofencing to restrict where Starlink is available on the front lines.

Because Starlink is a commercial product rather than a traditional defense contractor, Mr. Musk is able to make decisions that may not be aligned with U.S. interests, analysts have said.

Ukraine, concerned about over-dependence on Starlink, has consulted other satellite internet providers, but no other services come close to its reach, officials have said.

“Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, told The New York Times in a recent interview.

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