How Elon Musk’s Decision to Disable Starlink Services Undermined Ukraine’s Defense and Exacerbated the Conflict

Is Elon Musk a Power Broker or a Peacemaker in the Ukraine Conflict?

Crimean Bridge Explosion. Source: Eurasian Times
Crimean Bridge Explosion. Source: Eurasian Times

Kyiv, September 13, 2023: In the ongoing Ukraine conflict, the role of Elon Musk, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, has come under scrutiny. Is he a power broker influencing the war’s dynamics, or is he adhering to international law by refraining from becoming a private mercenary? These questions have sparked a contentious debate.

Elon Musk owns three prominent companies: X (formerly Twitter), Tesla (electric vehicles), and SpaceX, which operates the Starlink satellite internet constellation. It is SpaceX that is currently in the spotlight.

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Notably, Starlink has been providing internet services in Ukraine since the early days of Russia’s invasion, aiding government, military, and civilian communications. Approximately 42,000 Starlink terminals are deployed in Ukraine, offering vital communication services in rural areas and frontline operations. Importantly, Musk has provided these services either free of charge or at highly discounted rates.

However, Musk’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict gained significant attention with the release of his biography by American journalist Walter Isaacson. Excerpts from the book depict Musk as a “power broker” in the war, a characterization met with mixed reactions.

Critics like Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, argue that Musk’s pro-Russian decision in 2022 was a “mistake” that indirectly supported Russia. On the other hand, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former President, praised Musk for his stance, referring to him as “the one with the balls” if the biography’s accounts are accurate.

According to the biography, Musk’s controversial decision was made in October 2022 when Ukrainian armed sea drones, laden with explosives, were poised to attack the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. Musk ordered the suspension of Starlink service near Crimea, fearing that such an attack could trigger a nuclear response. This move extended to disabling some Starlink coverage in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine.

It’s essential to note that Starlink had been providing critical communication services in Ukraine, benefiting both the government and military. However, Musk’s decision was driven by a deep concern that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea could escalate into a nuclear conflict, as indicated by his conversations with senior Russian officials.

Musk’s rationale for suspending SpaceX’s services was rooted in his belief that Starlink was meant for peaceful purposes like internet access and not for military operations. Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that private companies should not finance foreign countries’ wars.

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Despite criticism, Musk defended his decision, fearing that allowing his company to support Ukraine’s war efforts would effectively make him a private mercenary, a stance consistent with the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries.

In conclusion, Elon Musk’s role in the Ukraine conflict, as revealed in his biography, has generated intense debate. While some view his decision as a peacemaking effort, others criticize it for potentially aiding Russia. Musk’s determination to keep Starlink focused on peaceful purposes underscores the complexity of private companies’ involvement in conflicts.

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