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Starlink Cuts Off Ukrainian Drones Ukraine’s Love-hate Relationship With SpaceX’s Elon Musk Continues

The Oasis Reporters

February 11, 2023







A crowd of people on their phones. Ukrainians use their mobile phones standing near a Starlink satellite-based broadband station in Kherson, on November 13, 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. – On November 11, 2022, Russia said it had pulled back more than 30,000 troops in the southern region, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declaring Kherson “ours” as residents reacted with joy and jubilation. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

By Jack Detsch, a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.



A Break in the Starlink

Ukraine’s military success, such as it has been, has hung on a lot of things outside of Kyiv’s control: Western (and especially American) military support, an army of crowdfunders outside of the country, and an unpredictable software impresario who was once the world’s richest man.

Now, Elon Musk-founded SpaceX, which sent more than 5,000 Starlink satellite internet dishes to Ukraine in the days after Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, said it plans to limit the use of the internet portal for what it deems to be “offensive” military operations. SpaceX alleges that Ukrainian troops have used the Starlink portals to control drones to attack Russian forces.

“It was never intended to be weaponized, but the Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a Federal Aviation Administration conference in Washington on Wednesday. “We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s OK. But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”

Specifically, Shotwell said the military’s use of the portals violated user agreements, but she did not provide any details on how Ukraine’s military used the systems beyond drone attacks.

Love-hate relationship. Nevermind the weirdness of a Silicon Valley company, let alone one run by the owner of Twitter, determining what constitutes an “offensive” military operation. The company’s decision to curb Starlink access continues a love-hate relationship between Musk and Ukraine.

Portable internet hubs have been a game-changer for Ukraine’s military, keeping units out in the field connected amid the devastation of Ukraine’s electricity and internet infrastructure.

In November 2022, CNN reported that 1,300 of Ukraine’s Starlink satellite dishes temporarily went out, just two months after SpaceX sent a letter in September of that year to the U.S. Defense Department saying it could no longer fund Starlink in Ukraine after spending nearly $100 million propping up the war-torn country’s internet service.

And meanwhile, Musk outraged top Ukrainian officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, in October 2022 by tweeting out a (seemingly) self-initiated peace plan (that mirrored Moscow’s talking points) to end Russia’s full-scale invasion that would leave the Kremlin in control of the Crimean Peninsula, which it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainian officials see Shotwell’s comments as another turning point in the relationship.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, tweeted on Thursday that Musk would have to decide whether he was with Ukraine’s right to freedom or Russia’s will to try to illegally seize sovereign territory. “#SpaceX (Starlink) & Mrs. #Shotwell should choose a specific option,” he wrote.

Russian reaction. At the same time, Russian Telegram channels appeared to light up with glee over the news. Ukraine has adapted its drones over the course of the war to do everything from targeting artillery strikes to conducting long-range kamikaze attacks against Russian lines, and commentators saw Musk’s latest move as a blow to the war effort.

© Foreign Policy


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Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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