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‘Chaos’: New report details headaches Starlink’s deployment in Ukraine gave U.S. officials—including fears Musk might cut service on a whim

Officials feared geofencing was being used to block soldiers from accessing the service.


Marlon Ettinger


Posted on Aug 21, 2023   Updated on Aug 21, 2023, 12:53 pm CDT

A new report in the New Yorker documents the massively influential role Elon Musk has with the U.S. government—including his effort to provide Starlink communications technology to Ukraine.

According to the article, as Musk became more sympathetic to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Starlink service started dropping for Ukrainian troops.

“My inference was that he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concerns,” an under-secretary for defense told the magazine after speaking with Musk.

The story highlights Musk’s shift in public support from Ukraine to Russia, and how service was subsequently impacted.

Starlink is a product from one of Elon Musk’s companies, SpaceX. It provides satellite-based internet connectivity based on a network of terminals that can be deployed in places where connectivity is almost nonexistent.

At the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Musk sent terminals to the front lines. However, not long after deploying them, he complained about the cost. 

On one occasion, the article reveals, Ukrainian forces were pushing into disputed territory in the south of Ukraine. “We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working,” a signal-corps soldier named Mykola told the New Yorker.

The impact was automatic. “It was chaos,” Mykola said.

The outages were reported right when soldiers “breached the frontline into Russian-controlled territory and some during pitched battles,” a senior Ukranian government official told the Financial Times when it happened. Outages were reported in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Frantic negotiations with Musk, who’d been providing the service on a non-contractual basis, followed.

“Ukrainian expats who had raised funds for the Starlink units began receiving frantic calls,” the New Yorker reported. One tech executive told the magazine that a Ukrainian official told him they needed Elon “now.”

“How now?” the executive asked, according to the New Yorker. “Like fucking now,” the magazine reported the official said. “People are dying.”

A senior defense official said that there was a “whole series” of meetings in the Defense Department to figure out what to do next.

It was immediately apparent that the department would need to finalize a contract with Musk. According to the magazine, American and Ukrainian officials said that they suspected SpaceX had cut off the service based on geofencing, which “cordon[ed] off areas of access.”

Backchannel negotiations with Musk and the Pentagon eventually convinced him not to continue cutting service.

“The hell with it …,” Musk tweeted in October 2022, “even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free[.]”

In June, the Defense Department announced they’d signed a contract with SpaceX, which a government official said was so Musk “couldn’t wake up one morning and just decide, like, he didn’t want to do this anymore.” 

The New Yorker report details just how deep Musk’s influence is in the U.S. government now. 

Ronan Farrow, who reported the story, said that a Pentagon spokesman told him that he was “keeping Musk apprised of my inquiries about his role in Ukraine and would grant an interview with an official about the matter only with Musk’s permission.”

“We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,” he said, according to the report.

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*First Published: Aug 21, 2023, 12:52 pm CDT