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Elon Musk has confirmed that he in essence scuttled a Ukrainian military strike on Russia by refusing to allow Starlink to be used in the process. The billionaire claims the decision was made to avoid being "complicit in a major act of war," but it also raises serious questions regarding the role of oligarchs in military matters.
The news was first reported by CNN, citing Walter Isaacson's upcoming biography of Musk. In the book, Musk describes a situation in 2022 when Ukraine planned an attack on Russia's navy off the coast of Crimea.
The ships and marine drones that would have performed this attack relied on Starlink for connectivity, but the satellite internet service was not (Musk asserted later on X/Twitter) active over the region. When Ukraine made an "emergency request" to activate it, he refused, and the drones "lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly," obviously leaving the Russian ships untouched.
(In a confusing "clarification" seemingly prompted by Musk's ire, Isaacson wrote later on X that Ukraine "thought" coverage had been enabled to Crimea, but for some reason asked Musk to enable it anyway, which he didn't.)
In a way the matter is very simple: A government requested a service from a private company that the leader of that company thought was inappropriate, and declined. Therein is demonstrated the inherent risk of relying on a private service for the prosecution of warfare — Musk was in effect a mercenary or arms dealer, albeit less directly involved in violence. (Russia itself would soon have its own demonstration of a similar principle when the Wagner Group marched on Moscow.)
But in another, far more troubling interpretation of events, an American billionaire made a unilateral military decision for a foreign allied power. Doubtless this has happened countless times before, but seldom has a technology from outside the military-industrial complex (and thus outside its norms and expectations) risen so quickly to prominence as Starlink has due to — it must be said — Musk's own promotion of it for use by Ukraine after Russia's invasion.
The complex mathematics of geopolitics are beyond the scope of this article (and indeed this site and your author), but it is hard not to wonder whether it is appropriate for Musk to offer a key service to support Ukraine, only to withdraw it at his own discretion.
"If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation," Musk wrote in justification of his decision.
Image Credits: X/Twitter
This is fair enough in its way, but, as with many of the CEO's pronouncements, is profoundly dismissive of important context.
Leaving aside that Starlink had been a key enabler of countless military actions already, one does not need to be an expert to find dubious Musk's claim that this would have amounted to a "mini-Pearl Harbor." Ukraine and Russia were by this time in open war, instigated by the latter's invasion; to compare a counterattack against an aggressor during a serious and ongoing conflict to the infamous sneak attack that drew the U.S. into World War II is at best ignorant. But considering Musk's proposals that the conflict end with concessions to Russia, it feels more disingenuous.
It is simply untenable for Musk's personal opinion of how a conflict should play out is the sole determinant of how Starlink can be deployed in warfare. As advisor to Ukrainian PM's office, Mykhailo Podolyak, expressed on X/Twitter after the story hit:
Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego.
Is Musk willing to perform the value judgment of whether negating an attack on Russian materiel is worth the inevitable cost in Ukrainian lives? Because that is the position he has placed himself in: deciding who should live in a war taking place on the opposite side of the world.
It's not hard to imagine that Musk may think himself capable of doing this, but it would not be the first time he has overestimated his own competence. The question is not whether he can make the choice, but whether he, or anyone in a similar position of civilian or commercial power, should be permitted to make it.
Garry Kasparov, former world Chess champion and now a prominent activist, offered a simple summary:
"SpaceX & Starlink are marvelous, but if Musk's delusional 'anti-war' agenda leads him to interfere with their services to Russia's advantage, it's a huge risk."
The situation Musk found himself in was new and unprecedented, but now it is neither. And those for whom life-and-death decisions are familiar territory will likely find ways to circumvent an interfering foreign oligarch in making them.