Elon Musk’s control over Starlink is in the spotlight after he thwarted a Ukrainian attack.
Musk says he vetoed a 2022 strike on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over fears it would escalate the war.
But critics say he was wrong — and that he alone should not have the power to decide.
Elon Musk is a US defense contractor, leading companies that have received tens of billions of dollars in contracts from the federal government. A new biography of the SpaceX founder and Tesla CEO, which reveals his unilateral decision to block a Ukrainian attack, is once again prompting the question: Should America — and its allies — be so dependent on one mercurial billionaire?
As Musk tells it, Ukrainian officials pleaded with him last year to extend his Starlink satellite internet service all the way to Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in illegally annexed Crimea, but he denied it citing concerns, relayed by Russian officials, that the attack could escalate the war, maybe even making it go nuclear. In this version, he is merely denying a request, not critically undermining an active mission.
But as his biographer, Walter Isaacson, tells it, Musk actually became aware that Ukraine was planning a maritime drone attack, using Starlink, on Russia’s naval assets, which have fired missiles that devastated Ukrainian cities and wrecked the country’s grain exports. Seeing the attack transpire using Starlink — and texting his biographer about the military operation as it was unfolding — Musk “secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast,” and ignored subsequent pleas to turn it back on, according to an excerpt of his new biography of the entrepreneur.
“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,” Musk told Isaacson. “We did not want to be a part of that.” (Musk later reassured a Russian ambassador that Ukraine would not be able to use Starlink for offensive operations, according to Isaacson).
As Ukrainian officials see it, sinking Russia’s fleet, if that was indeed a possibility, would have prevented hundreds of missiles from raining down on the country’s infrastructure, and spared civilian lives. Despite Kremlin intimations about World War III, Ukrainian attacks on its vessels, including the sinking of its flagship Moskva missile cruiser — and an attack this week on ships being repaired in Sevastopol — have been answered with more of the usual: Seemingly deliberate attacks against civilians, not nuclear bombs.
Were Starlink operated at the direction of the Pentagon, it’s possible that the Biden administration also would have denied Ukraine’s attack on Crimea, if not sabotaged it. But that would have been a decision made by an elected government; Right or wrong, it would have been subject to democratic input, not the unchecked whims of a mercurial billionaire whose personal finances may not always align with the desires of the United States and its partners, including the democratically elected leadership of Ukraine.
“This is one of the challenges of relying on a commercial service that has its own interest in ensuring that it remains out of the crosshairs,” Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, told Insider. Musk, at a minimum, does not want his satellites shot down by the Russian government (although Starlink, used by Ukrainian soldiers to coordinate on the front lines, is arguably a legitimate military target already).
In June, the Defense Department signed another contract with SpaceX, specifically for Starlink, that reportedly gives US officials more say in where and when at least some of the service’s tablet-like terminals can operate. The contract, the terms of which have not been disclosed, also highlights SpaceX’s willingness — for compensation — to serve US and Ukrainian national security interests.
Washington does have some leverage, then. But it’s also utterly dependent: no other company provides an equivalent service at the scale of SpaceX, providing the robust data needed to build a battlefield network where landlines and cellular services are non-existent. Even if it wanted to change Musk’s mind, it is not clear that it can actually compel him to do anything when it comes to Ukrainian attacks on territory controlled by Russia.
“Rather,” Pettyjohn said, “they have to convince him that this is hurting the Ukrainian war effort, not qualitatively different than other attacks going on, and not likely to precipitate retaliation against the company.”
SpaceX uses Falcon 9 rockets to transport batches of around 60 Starlink satellites at a time.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
War and peace — and Elon Musk
But that arrangement — elected officials pleading with an unelected businessman to serve the country’s national security interests, for which he has received the right to view classified information — strikes many as antidemocratic.
David Frum, a one-time speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, now a writer for The Atlantic, argues that Musk’s veto of a Ukrainian attack constitutes a “confessed abuse of power by a US government contractor,” one that demands an “exhaustive congressional investigation.”
As Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois, highlights in an essay for The Daily Beast, the Crimean episode shows not only that Musk is susceptible to empty nuclear threats from a hostile foreign government, despite being on the US payroll, but that he has real-time access to incredibly sensitive information — and doesn’t protect it: As Isaacson told it, Musk “texted him about the Ukrainian sea drones headed to Crimea as he was trying to decide what to do,” Grossman notes, which is at the very least “an information security risk.”
As The Washington Post’s editorial board recently pointed out, President Joe Biden could simply nationalize Starlink on security grounds, taking control of the nearly 5,000 satellites that SpaceX has launched since 2019, while of course providing a handsome return to Musk for his investment.
There’s precedent for the US government to control technologies and businesses that impact its security and that of its allies. In World War II, the US nationalized vast portions of the economy including railroads, shipyards, coal mines and manufacturers of war materials such as explosives, textiles and machinery.
But it’s not hard to imagine how that would play out politically, particularly given Musk’s own right-wing politics and ability to disseminate them on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment).
“A better solution,” according to the Post, “might be for the United States to try to build satellites of its own.” A $1.5 billion contract awarded by the Defense Department last month aims to do just that, albeit on a much smaller scale. In the future, at least, Starlink would no longer be “the democratic world’s only good option.”
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to requests for comment.
Josh Marshall, editor of the news site Talking Points Memo, was more blunt: “You simply can’t have critical national security infrastructure in the hands of a Twitter troll who’s a soft touch for whichever foreign autocrat blows some smoke up his behind.”
Put another, more diplomatic way: The power to decide serious questions of war and peace is currently vested in the hands of an unelected man who is treated as if he were a head of state — one who effectively works for the US government but certainly does not behave like an employee. Even were Musk the one person singularly best prepared to answer such questions, the burden would be unfair; the consensus, today, is that he’s not — and that the current arrangement is subject to the whims of one man.
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