Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX.
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine targeted the Russian navy in Crimea on Tuesday.
It’s the same kind of strike Elon Musk sabotaged in 2022, fearing it’d cause nuclear war.
But it appears Musk fell for a Russian bluff, say critics.
Flames engulfed Russian naval ships in a major dockyard in the occupied Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian missile attack.
The attack was notable not just as another example of Ukraine’s capacity to strike Russia deep behind its front line, but also, say critics, because it exposed the falsity of SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s reasons for scuppering a similar Ukrainian strike.
The SpaceX CEO last year effectively sabotaged a Ukrainian attack as drones were bearing down on Russian naval vessels in Sevastopol in the early weeks of the conflict, as revealed in Walter Isaacson’s new biography about the billionaire.
Musk decided not to activate the Starlink satellites used to guide the drones, fearing the attack could be a new Pearl Harbour, that would escalate the conflict and potentially invite a nuclear response from Russia.
The incident was a startling indication of the power Musk wields and was the first time it had been revealed that the billionaire directly intervened to prevent a military operation in the conflict.
Was Elon Musk played by Russia?
What’s been notably absent in the wake of Tuesday’s strike is any sign of the massive escalation from Russia that Musk said he acted to prevent.
In fact, there have been several attacks on Russian vessels in Sevastopol since the incident Isaacson describes, including an October 2022 attack using sea drones, which also didn’t provoke a massive Russian response.
In the book, Isaacson describes how when Musk learned that Starlink satellites were being used to guide the drones, he spoke by phone with officials including the Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov.
Antonov, Isaacson writes, persuaded Musk that an attack on Sevastopol would trigger a nuclear response from Russia under the state’s military doctrine. Musk said he cut the attack off to prevent a “major act of war and conflict escalation” in a tweet after excerpts of the book were published last week.
Critics say that Musk was played by Russia.
“This is a cautionary tale about the arrogance of a billionaire who has come to play a mercurial role in US foreign policy. But it’s also a story about fear, seeded and promoted by the Russians, deliberately designed to shape broader Western perceptions of this war,” wrote historian Anne Appelbaum in The Atlantic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Kremlin officials have repeatedly menaced Ukraine and the West with the prospect of a nuclear attack.
Putin even suggested when he declared the formal annexation of swaths of east Ukraine in October 2022 that an attack on the territory would be treated as an attack on Russia, suggesting that the Kremlin could respond with a nuclear strike.
Yet Ukraine has continued to attack the territory, and even seized some of it back from Russia, without triggering the nuclear response Putin threatened. Even Ukrainian attacks on Russia itself have not triggered a massive escalation from Russia.
There remains open to Musk the argument that the attack he foiled was on a much bigger scale than Tuesday’s and that in the early weeks of the war, the boundaries of escalation were not clearly known.
But for critics, Musk has been among the most successful targets of Russian propaganda and scaremongering.
“Elon Musk acting to stop Ukraine from attacking Russian occupied territory shows him to be, at best, ignorant on war and susceptible to Russian propaganda,” tweeted Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois.
Insider has contacted SpaceX for comment.