How Musk Foiled a Ukrainian Drone Attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Last Year

Elon Musk foiled an attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet last year by refusing to let Ukraine use his satellite network to guide its drones, Mr. Musk has acknowledged, provoking a furious response from a top official in Kyiv and renewing questions about the global power wielded by a multibillionaire businessman.

Ukraine’s military forces have relied heavily on the Starlink satellites owned by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX company for communications since Russia disabled Ukraine’s internet services as part of its invasion in early 2022. But Mr. Musk would not allow the network to be used for an attack last September with maritime drones on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that Russia illegally seized in 2014 and then annexed.

At the time of the attempted attack, Mr. Musk spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly I. Antonov, who had told him an attack on Crimea “could lead to a nuclear response,” according to a biography of Mr. Musk by the historian and journalist Walter Isaacson. Copies of the book were obtained by The New York Times from a bookstore on Friday, though it is not set to go on sale until Tuesday. The account was included in an excerpt from the book published on Thursday by The Washington Post.

Mr. Musk confirmed elements of the story, writing on his social network X, formerly Twitter, “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

Within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Mr. Musk began sending Starlink terminals to the country — eventually more than 42,000 of them — in response to public pleas from Ukrainian officials. Throughout the war, the connectivity provided by Starlink has been pivotal for Ukraine’s military to coordinate drone strikes and gather intelligence, and it has also aided hospitals, businesses and aid organizations across Ukraine.

Mr. Isaacson’s account left several questions unanswered, including who had initiated the call between Mr. Musk and Mr. Antonov, and whether Mr. Musk had revealed the planned attack to the Russian ambassador. The book says that Mr. Musk consulted with Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not whether the American officials urged him to allow the attack to proceed.

Mr. Musk disputed one part of the account by Mr. Isaacson, who reported that Mr. Musk had instructed Starlink “engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast.” Mr. Musk said there had never been such coverage. The request he turned down, he said, was to extend the network’s range to allow the attack.

Ukrainian and U.S. officials have long been uneasy with the vital position in Ukraine held by Mr. Musk, reportedly the wealthiest person in the world. He has acknowledged for months being in contact with Russian as well as Ukrainian officials, raising concerns about his being influenced by the Kremlin’s view. He is also known for his unpredictability and has suggested elements of a peace settlement to the war that officials in Kyiv have dismissed as capitulation to aggression.

Mr. Musk said last October that he could not “indefinitely” finance Ukraine’s use of Starlink, then abruptly reversed course. The Pentagon later began paying at least part of the cost of the service. But 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 has no alternative to his satellite network, potentially giving him enormous power over the course of the war, just as the U.S. government has no alternative to SpaceX for some of its efforts to launch satellites and people into orbit. Ukraine has consulted other satellite internet providers, but no other services come close to Starlink’s reach.

Russia uses its ships to launch cruise missiles at Ukraine, often at civilian targets, and some Ukrainians insisted on Friday that an attack on the Black Sea fleet was little more than an act of self-defense.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Mr. Musk of enabling Russian aggression. Because of Mr. Musk’s decision, “civilians, children are being killed,” he wrote on X on Thursday. “This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego.”

As long ago as February, Mr. Musk said that his company would not allow use of Starlink for long-range strikes by Ukraine, and a SpaceX executive said that Starlink had taken steps to curtail Ukraine’s use of the technology to control drones, infuriating Ukrainian officials.

Some sophisticated drones rely on satellite links for navigation, either autonomously or steered by a remote operator. Without that, the drones used in the attempted Sevastopol attack “washed ashore harmlessly,” Mr. Isaacson wrote.

The book quotes Mr. Musk as saying: “I think if the Ukrainian attacks had succeeded in sinking the Russian fleet, it would have been like a mini Pearl Harbor and led to a major escalation. We did not want to be a part of that.”

In July, The 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 dependence on Starlink.

Ukrainian troops use Starlink to communicate on encrypted messaging apps like Signal, to send each other live drone videos, to run a Ukrainian networked battlefield awareness app called Delta, and to unwind in their down time, browsing the internet and talking to loved ones.

On the Ukrainian side, the diminutive Starlink antennas, draped in camouflage nets, cables snaking back to a battery and internet router, are found in forests and fields, mounted on the roofs of trucks or propped up on sidewalks in frontline villages.

The system has increased the lethality of Ukrainian artillery strikes. Before Starlink turned up, spotters with binoculars or flying drones would radio coordinates to a commander, who would decide whether to strike, then radio an artillery unit.

With Starlink, artillery teams, commanders and drone pilots can all watch video feeds simultaneously while chatting online, cutting the time from finding a target to hitting it from nearly 20 minutes to a minute or so, soldiers have said in interviews.

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

Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting.

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