Dan Milmo in Lisbon Thur 3 Nov 2022 12.11 GMT
Ukraine’s first lady has said she hopes Elon Musk’s tweet about a peace deal to end the war with Russia was a “chance mistake” and that the Ukrainian people “admired” the world’s richest man for the help he has given to her country’s war effort.
Musk drew the ire of Ukrainians last month when he posted a tweet suggesting a Ukraine-Russia peace deal that included formally annexing Crimea to Russia and holding UN-supervised elections in four Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine. Musk later denied a report that he had spoken to Vladimir Putin before floating the plan, which he had presented as a Twitter poll.
In an interview with the Guardian, Olena Zelenska said Ukraine was grateful for Musk’s Starlink satellite broadband service. She said: “We have to thank him for Starlink because it’s still working. It does still work and we hope that it gives us help towards victory by making our efforts smarter.”
Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon via an interpreter, she added: “And, of course, you know, he supported Ukraine from the very first day and that’s why Ukrainians really admired him. So it was extremely sensitive for us to read the tweet. Let’s be honest, even the smartest person can’t say the smartest things 24 hours a day. There are mistakes. And we hope it was a chance mistake.”
Zelenska’s husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had responded to Musk at the time with his own poll asking “which Elon Musk” readers preferred: the one who supported Ukraine, or the one who supported Russia.
Musk’s relationship with the country came under further strain last month when he suggested he could not continue funding the country’s use of Starlink, which has become a key communications network for Ukraine’s armed forces. However, the Tesla chief executive then said he would maintain payments, tweeting that “we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free”.
Musk has been contacted for comment.
Zelenska also addressed the issue of social media, which has become a key player in the information war between Ukraine and Russia. She said Ukraine, whose use of platforms such as Twitter has helped garner support in the west, “knows how to manage” social media and has used it to “make sure the world knows the truth”.
However, she accused Instagram’s owner, Meta, of “double standards” by placing one of her posts, showing the aftermath of a Russian attack that killed a four-year-old Ukrainian girl she knew, under a sensitivity screen.
“What we have to do is to show the facts, show the pictures which unfortunately show that these atrocities are happening,” she said. “But the companies which are supposed to spread this truth are trying to hide the content.”
Meta declined to comment. It is understood that Instagram shielded the photograph from immediate public view because of its graphic nature.
Asked about life in Kyiv with her husband and two children, Zelenska said: “We live day to day and we are getting used to the fact that we can’t plan anything for more than several hours ahead.” She added: “We know how to change our plans very quickly, to switch from real life to online [schooling] or whether to go to the bomb shelters. We have all become crisis managers. And very good crisis managers too.”
In a speech to the Web Summit on Monday, Zelenska told attenders that their industry had become “a battlefield in Russia’s war against Ukraine”. Zelenska, who has set up a foundationto support healthcare, education and humanitarian aid in her country, said innovations such as advances in prosthetic limbs could help Ukrainians injured in the conflict.
On Tuesday, Zelenskiy said Russian forces had “seriously damaged” about 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, in particular thermal and hydroelectric power stations.
Zelenska said “high-capacity power banks”, akin to supercharged versions of the packs used to charge mobile phones, could be one tech solution that would help Ukraine.
“We are facing an energy crisis in Ukraine after the constant attacks on energy infrastructure. And that means that Ukrainians are buying generators, power banks, batteries. Perhaps it’s time for the world to think about creating power banks with high capacity. That could be an interesting and much needed startup,” she said.
On Thursday Microsoft announced at the Web Summit that it was extending its free technology support to the Ukrainian government through next year. The extra aid, worth about $100m, includes letting government agencies run their digital infrastructure through Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.
“The digital alliance supporting Ukraine must continue to stand strong,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president.