Elon Musk: Ukraine’s Fair-Weather Friend

Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine has passed the one-year mark, an ironic reminder that Russian President Vladimir Putin planned for a war lasting less than a week.

Among several mistakes, Putin wrongly assumed that the Ukrainian people would fold at the first sight of missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities. Likewise, he dismissed Ukrainian military staying power in the face of superior Russian firepower. Meanwhile, Russia’s brutal fighting forces, historically notorious for infamous depredations, would supposedly crush Ukrainian civic society’s will to resist.

Putin’s predictions seemed sensible at the time. After all, in 2023, even after a year of war, Russia’s almost 4,200 combat aircraft faced just over 310 for Ukraine. Russia’s navy was nearly 16 times the size of Ukraine’s, and Russian ground forces, both active and reserve, outnumbered Ukraine’s almost seven-to-one. 

Russian missile attacks have purposely targeted civilian residential and infrastructure areas, making a horrific mess of Ukraine. Rebuilding and cleanup will demand some $350 billion or more while Russian missile and other attacks have claimed more than 8,000 dead Ukrainian civilians. Such death and destruction have displaced more than seven million inside Ukraine and forced another five million to flee as refugees.

Yet Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, is now going AWOL from Ukraine’s fight for survival. 

Musk owns rocket company SpaceX and Starlink, its satellite affiliate company that provides internet communications throughout the world. After Russia invaded, his Starlink provided a vital communication network for Ukraine’s society and military after other internet systems became unavailable due to causes like war damage or power outages. Initially he provided Starlink services for free, but later received some American government funding.

In early February, however, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell announced that Starlink would limit Ukrainian access in order to prevent the network’s use for guiding drones, which have become a key technology in Ukraine’s war. Since last fall, Russia has used Iranian-made Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones to loiter over search areas before crashing into targets. Although they are about eight feet across and hard to detect by radar, Ukraine has become better at shooting them down with small arms, heavy machine guns, portable antiair missiles, and jamming devices. For example, Ukraine claims to have shot down all 80 Shahed-136 drones launched during a New Year’s Eve attack. 

Ukraine has its own drones, including some 700 Switchblade kamikaze drones delivered by the United States last May. But limiting Starlink -- which became central to Ukrainian military operations after Musk volunteered the technology -- will hobble Ukraine. It will have a much more difficult time guiding drones on strikes and during reconnaissance missions to identify targets for artillery and other systems. Ukraine may finally start to feel just how outnumbered it truly is. 

Speaking at a February 8 Washington, D.C., conference, Shotwell argued that Starlink was “never meant to be weaponized” and that “Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.” Noting Ukrainian use of Starlink in drone warfare, she referenced “things that we can do to limit their ability to do that… and have done.” “We know the military is using them for comms, and that's ok,” she contradictorily added, yet Starlink’s “intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes,” only humanitarian needs.

Musk himself incoherently tried to justify Starlink’s behavior in a response to a February 11 tweet by former astronaut Scott Kelly. “Ukraine desperately needs your continued support. Please restore the full functionality of your Starlink satellites. Defense from a genocidal invasion is not an offensive capability. It’s survival,” he had pleaded to Musk. The next day the SpaceX billionaire responded, “Starlink is the communication backbone of Ukraine, especially at the front lines, where almost all other Internet connectivity has been destroyed.” But he “will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.”

Starlink’s claims make no sense. SpaceX began offering Starlink technology to Ukraine to help (purportedly) solve a humanitarian crisis. By eliminating Starlink for Ukrainian drone usage, SpaceX is now putting Ukraine at greater risk of greater military losses and civilian suffering at the hands of Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile Musk’s splitting the difference between an acceptable Starlink “communication backbone” for Ukrainian forces and an unacceptable drone usage “that may lead to WW3” is incoherent.  

While disheartening, Musk’s move is unsurprising to anyone familiar with Musk’s haphazard record. He loves to overpromise and underdeliver almost as much as he loves to chase media headlines, even as he turns a blind eye to human rights abusers like China and benefits from crony capitalism. SpaceX’s record is filled with instances of Musk promising rocket launches on unreasonable timelines at unsustainable price points, behavior that has delayed countless government missions and increased their costs

But letting down taxpayers and government procurement officers is one thing; abandoning a country in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and fight for independence is quite another.

This represents a new low even by Musk standards. The billionaire’s supporters in both the public and private sectors should take notice. 

Image: Cléverson Oliveira/Mcom

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