Billionaire Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, Space X, among others, is playing the most troubled game in the war in Ukraine. British media and Ukrainian officials report that parts of the Starlink network supporting internet traffic and battlefield communications have suddenly been disabled. These dysfunctions with serious consequences come after a series of messages posted by Elon Musk calling on the Ukrainians to negotiate with Putin and to abandon their claims to Crimea. A speech in line with the interests of the Kremlin, with which Elon Musk would maintain relations at the highest level. We knew the dependence of States on each other on subjects such as energy; we discover the dependence of States on the goodwill of one man, alone, holder of the strategic keys to digital power.
A strange imbroglio has erupted in recent days over Starlink, the mobile satellite Internet system created by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. And, although this affair is still partially shrouded in the fog of war, it is necessary to stop there and to disentangle the springs and the possible consequences of it.
Back to the early days of the war in Ukraine. When Russia invaded his country, the very young Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov launched on Twitter a call for the famous billionaire to provide Starlink stations to his nation. “While you are trying to colonize Mars, Russia is occupying Ukraine,” he implored. A message heard by Musk who accepted on the spot the provision of his network on Ukraine and the massive sending of Starlink terminals in the country, in order to provide Internet to the civilians as to the military.
A new batch of Starlink stations! While Russia is blocking access to the Internet, Ukraine is becoming more open to the entire world. Ukraine is the truth. The truth always wins. Thank you, @elonmuskthe Government of Poland, and Orlen. pic.twitter.com/TP0kpn3rPS
— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) March 18, 2022
These small devices, which were initially intended for a consumer market, operate via a link with SpaceX satellites. Starlink is of major interest in wartime: it is “distributed”, that is to say dispersed and therefore much more difficult to spot and destroy by enemy fire. According to Elon Musk, about 25,000 Starlinks for an estimated value between 80 and 100 million dollars have been installed in Ukraine, allowing the operation of vital public and humanitarian equipment, ranging from hospitals to banks. But this network also plays a considerable role for the Ukrainian armed forces. It allows them to communicate and above all to locate and guide their strikes with extreme precision. Musk thus immediately became a hero in the eyes of Ukrainians and his face appeared on all the thank you posters for Ukraine supporters before it was erased by angry Ukrainians.
Indeed recently, things took a strange turn. Last month, Musk suddenly tweeted that “Starlink is for peaceful use only.” However, it is common knowledge that Space X equips several NATO military groups in quantity. Weird restriction in Starlink usage vocabulary.
Then, at the end of September, Starlink terminals stopped working in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine that Putin claims to have annexed, but which have been reconquered by the Ukrainian army. Kyiv officials say this has created “catastrophic” situations. The same Ukrainian officials said last week that the cuts came amid counterattacks in the south and east of the country. Their account was confirmed by soldiers on the front line and by a Starlink terminal operator. The latter overseeing dozens of Starlink devices along the front line said those that were offline in some areas recently liberated last Friday were working again Sunday morning.
Ukrainian officials said the timing of the outages and subsequent reinstatement raised suspicions that the problems were not caused by technical malfunctions, or jamming by Russian forces, suggesting that they could be the result of geographical restrictions imposed by SpaceX.
Ukraine’s former defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said he hoped Musk hadn’t rendered the devices ineffective in certain areas, adding: “If he did, it’s unacceptable because it means that he took a direct part in the war by damaging our abilities. “It is not up to individuals or private companies to decide what is climbing and to interfere in the equipment that our allies have provided us with,” he added.
So, technical problem, Russian jamming, interruptions by Spaxe X? No one knows for the moment but the hypotheses are going well and mostly point to an intervention by Elon Musk. The latter contributes to the confusion by posting on Twitter: “What happens on the battlefield is confidential”. However, Ukrainian observers quoted by the Financial Times wonder if SpaceX officials have not tried to slow down Ukraine’s advance. Adding to the rumor mill, according to the same outlet, Russian TV personality Vladimir Solovyov said this week that Musk would take a pro-Russian stance to avoid unleashing attacks on his satellites.
Elon Musk even went so far as to propose a peace plan on October 3 in the form of a post on Twitter, the platform he is also in the process of acquiring. He proposes to ” redo the elections in the annexed territories, under the control of the United Nations ” and urges the Ukrainians to abandon their intentions of recovering Crimea ” which has belonged to Russia since 1783 “. He also asks that Ukraine adopt a status of neutrality.
– Redo elections of annexed regions under UN supervision. Russia leaves if that is will of the people.
– Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).
– Water supply to Crimea assured.
– Ukraine remains neutral.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 3, 2022
This message immediately angered not only Ukrainians but also a large part of the world. “It’s stupidity, a relay of Kremlin propaganda, a betrayal of Ukrainian courage and sacrifice”, was carried away by the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov. “Which Elon Musk do you prefer, the one who supports Russia or the one who supports Ukraine? “Probed meanwhile, as a scathing response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the same platform.
Which @elonmusk do you like more?
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) October 3, 2022
Ian Bremmer is a keen observer of this crisis. He runs consultancy Eurasia Group and reveals in a newsletter published on Monday that Elon Musk personally rejected a Ukrainian request to extend his satellite internet service to Crimea, fearing that an effort to retake the peninsula from Russian forces would lead to an escalation of the conflict and ultimately to a nuclear war.
According to Ian Bremmer, indeed, Musk claimed to have recently personally spoken on the phone with Russian President Putin, saying he was “ready to negotiate. Musk reportedly told him that during that conversation, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine tried to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which serves as a base for Russian naval forces on the Black Sea.
elon musk told me he had spoken with putin and the kremlin directly about ukraine. he also told me what the kremlin’s red lines were.
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) October 11, 2022
Elon Musk categorically denies the existence of this conversation with the master of the Kremlin. The fact remains that several signs show reversals in the appreciation of the war by the boss of Space X and his desire to stop the course of events. Last Sunday, a day after the bridge that connects Crimea to Russia was damaged in an attack, Musk tweeted that he had ‘spent all night trying to think of any possible way to de-escalate this war’ .
I’ve been up all night trying to think of any possible way to de-escalate this war
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 9, 2022
This case inevitably raises vast questions. Elon Musk certainly has the right, as an individual, to express all the opinions he wishes on the war. But Elon Musk is not just anyone; it is not a state or an institutional organization. He is a man, alone, who has considerable power through his companies: that of granting or withdrawing vital strategic resources at any time. Can we accept that, in the midst of an armed conflict, an individual, however billionaire, may want to impose his geopolitical truth and his opinion by intervening directly on the battlefield while the Ukrainian forces are on the offensive there?
Ukraine became dependent on using Starlink to get internet coverage this year because it needed to act quickly, and the system was much better than the alternatives, and initially quite cheap. But this dependence also creates a potential vulnerability, which is reminiscent of Germany’s heavy use of Russian gas or its dependence on Taiwanese computer chips.
We knew the dependence of states on energy sources and other strategic resources. But this dependence was played out at the state level. Today, a single man can hold hostage the fate of the war in Ukraine, a conflict that is far from trivial: everyone fears that it will turn into an all-out war.