SpaceX chief executive deals blow to Ukraine’s battle plan by insisting his firm can not be used to conduct long-range offensive strikes
By Joe Barnes, BRUSSELS CORRESPONDENT 31 July 2023 • 8:57pm
Elon Musk forced Ukraine to drop a planned naval drone strike in the Black Sea by refusing access to the Starlink satellite network, according to a US report.
The Ukrainian military was not able to remotely pilot a drone laden with explosives into a Russian ship in occupied Crimea following the decision of the SpaceXchief executive.
Mr Musk, the 52-year-old South African-born billionaire, has previously said he does not want Starlink used to conduct long-range offensive strikes.
But General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the leader of Ukraine’s armed forces, was concerned enough about the refusal to raise Musk’s power with his American counterpart, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the New York Times.
Kyiv’s top general told him his forces had had their access to Starlink restricted on a number of occasions, the paper reported.
Satellite terminals donated by Mr Musk have become vital to Ukrainian military communications.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, told The Telegraph: “The issue is that at critical stages of the war, we desperately need absolute operational and technical independence.
“That is, the dependence of decision-making and its implementation must be 100 per cent. The risks for our military are too great when the course of offensive operations depends on external circumstances or third parties.”
Kenneth Roth, a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Kyiv’s military operations were “in effect being second guessed and sometimes rejected by Elon Musk, with his uncertain political loyalties and quirky personality”.
Ulrike Franke, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “it doesn’t matter how you feel about Musk – no individual should have this power.”
The “constellation” of satellites, operated by Mr Musk’s SpaceX firm, are used to coordinate drone and artillery strikes, stream live video from the battlefield and gather intelligence.
But the technology entrepreneur has long-held reservations over his system being used for offensive capabilities.
He has restricted access to Starlink on multiple occasions throughout the war, according to a report by the New York Times, citing people familiar with the situation.
Decisions to shut down internet access, such as the one taken to block the strikes on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, can be made alone by Mr Musk.
In February, he wrote on Twitter: “We are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.”
Ukraine has used a fleet of sea drones to strike Russian targets, most recently using two of the crafts to destroy a stretch of the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia.
It is Mr Musk’s unilateral control over the Starlink system that sparks fear in Ukraine’s government, given his public spats with officials in Kyiv.
On the system’s importance, Mr Podolyak said: “It is vital. At the very least, to balance Russian capabilities and to have effective command of large military groups.
“Starlink is about defence, advancement, and survival,” he added.
Last year, Mr Musk published a “peace plan” for Ukraine, suggesting it should mirror sovereignty referendums organised by Russia in regions it occupied.
The Kremlin welcomed the billionaire’s suggestion as a “positive” step, while Kyiv accused him of presenting proposals aligned to Russian interests.
General Zaluzhnyi told General Milley Ukraine’s military success was dependent on continued access to Starlink in their call in March, which was held over a secure line.
American officials who were also dialed into the call refused to offer Kyiv an assessment of Mr Musk, and his business and political interests.
Mr Musk last year asked the Pentagon to fund his internet service in Ukraine because Starlink could not continue to offer it for free.
The firm estimated the cost at nearly $400 million (£310 million) for a 12-month period, according to a report by CNN.
Some 1,300 Starlink terminals purchased by a British supplier ceased working after the Ukrainian government couldn’t meet the $2,500 monthly fee for each.
To allay fears, the Pentagon last month brokered a deal to buy up to 500 Starlink terminals that can be used to carry out “key capabilities and certain missions”, two sources told the New York Times.
The Telegraph approached SpaceX for comment.