It was September 2022, and Kyiv was determined to attack the Russian naval fleet at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Their plan was straightforward: guided by SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system, six drone submarines would sneak through Russia’s defences and detonate their explosives. Starlink, owned by Elon Musk, had been providing communications services to Ukraine since the start of the war; there was every reason to believe the mission would be a success.

Except it wasn’t. In a new biography, Walter Isaacson writes that Musk, concerned the attack would make Starlink complicit in a major act of war and potentially prompt an escalatory Russian response (perhaps even a nuclear one), decided to secretly switch off Starlink’s coverage of Crimea.

Musk has since dismissed these claims, pointing out that Crimea was not covered by Starlink in the first place because of US sanctions on Russia (which included Crimea); he simply refused to act upon an emergency request by the Ukrainian government for the connection to be turned on for what Musk described as “a Pearl Harbor-type attack on the Russian fleet in Sevastopol”. “Our terms of service clearly prohibit Starlink for offensive military action, as we are a civilian system, so they were asking for something that was expressly prohibited,” Musk said.

Isaacson subsequently admitted his mistake. His “revelation”, however, incorrect as it may have been, has nonetheless fuelled a frenzy of attacks directed at Musk. He was called “evil” by a high-level Ukrainian official and a “traitor” by American pro-war hawks. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said Musk was “intervening to try to stop Ukraine from winning the war”. CNN’s Jake Tapper called Musk a “capricious billionaire” who “effectively sabotaged a military operation by Ukraine, a US ally”. Senator Elizabeth Warren even called for an immediate congressional investigation into Starlink’s activities in Ukraine.

Such reactions were surprising for a number of reasons. Putting aside Musk’s remarkable support for Ukraine and the strictly legal argument for restraint — namely that Musk needed US presidential authorisation to activate Starlink over Crimea — they forget that his position on Russia’s Crimean “red line” was widely held at the time. Indeed, it was shared until recently by several American and Western experts and diplomats, including Biden’s own Secretary of State Antony Blinken. That the US administration has now pivoted on Crimea, and on Ukrainian attacks in Russian territory, does not change the fact that Musk’s view reflected the consensus last September. Nor, of course, does Russia’s reluctance to go nuclear, despite Ukraine recently carrying out a successful attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, exclude more serious forms of retaliation in the future, especially if Russia’s control of Crimea is threatened.

Even more important, recent criticisms of Musk obfuscate a more pressing issue: how did a private businessman come to play such a crucial role in this war in the first place?

In order to answer this question, we must return to February 24, 2022. Just one hour before the invasion, a hacker attack, quite obviously carried out by the Russians, put out of use thousands of modems connected to the American satellite company Viasat, which the Ukrainian government and military relied on for command and control of the country’s armed forces. This meant that, in the earliest hours of the invasion, Ukraine was largely deaf and blind, with very limited communication abilities.

Two days after the invasion, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, appealed to Musk on Twitter to provide Ukraine access to Starlink’s satellite internet system — the only system capable of providing the necessary coverage: “While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations.” That same day, Musk replied: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” Two days later, 10,000 relay stations needed to receive the signal from Starlink were delivered to Ukraine. Shortly afterwards, Starlink brought the Ukrainian government and military back online, allowing them to communicate and coordinate battlefield operations, and giving them an eye in the sky (through satellite-guided drones) capable of tracking Russian movements and striking military targets with pinpoint accuracy.

It should be noted that the exchange of tweets between Fedorov and Musk was largely a marketing stunt. In March 2022, SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell had already revealed that Starlink had been working for weeks to bring Starlink’s satellite internet service to Ukraine. This would explain how the company was able to deliver thousands of terminals to a war zone in a matter of days. In the subsequent months, more than 40,000 terminals, used not just by the military but by banks, businesses and hospitals, were delivered to Ukraine, with the financial support of USAID.

It is hard to overstate just how important Starlink has been for Ukraine; one could even argue that it has been the single most important factor behind Kyiv’s defence, considering that much of weaponry provided by the West would have been largely ineffective without the support of satellite-guided drones, and without real-time communication between soldiers. It also allowed the economy, particularly the banking system, to keep functioning. Crucially, SpaceX initially offered Starlink’s services for free, at a significant financial burden for the company. As Fedorov told the New York Times: “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now… This is one of the fundamental components of our success.” “Without Starlink, we cannot fly, we cannot communicate,” a Ukrainian deputy added.

Relations between Musk and Ukraine, however, started to sour last autumn. Musk started growing increasingly concerned about Starlink’s use for offensive purposes, as attested by the Crimea affair. In October, Russia also raised the issue at the UN General Assembly: it denounced “the use by the United States and its allies of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure elements in outer space for military purposes”, and, clearly referring to Starlink, warned that this “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation” (something that Musk himself had expressed concern about).

At around the same time, Musk proposed a peace plan for Ukraine that included Russia maintaining control of Crimea, sparking outrage among both Ukrainian and Western officials. Zelenskyy openly questioned Musk’s loyalty, to which the latter replied: “SpaceX’s out of pocket cost to enable and support Starlink in Ukraine is ~$80M so far. Our support for Russia is $0. Obviously, we are pro-Ukraine.”

Musk’s response highlighted the company’s growing concerns about the mounting costs borne by SpaceX. The company made it clear that the situation was not only financially unsustainable but also unfair, in view of Starlink’s crucial role in assisting military operations in Ukraine, American defence companies were making billions from the war — why should SpaceX be expected to provide its services for free? In an attempt to remedy this, the company started discussions with the Pentagon to fund Starlink for Ukraine. Eventually, in June, the US Department of Defense revealed that it had negotiated a deal with SpaceX to take over Starlink’s services in Ukraine — so we can assume that the system is now largely under the Pentagon’s control.

There are several lessons to be drawn from this. The first is that, as Italian journalist Frediano Finucci writes in Operazione Satellite, future historians will look back on this conflict as the “first global satellite war”. The second is that, while Musk can be accused of a lot of things, his support for Ukraine cannot be underestimated. Indeed, if anything, Musk could be criticised for the opposite reason — for giving Ukraine and the West an excuse not to negotiate a peace deal in the early days of the war, when Russia had less leverage than today, and ultimately leaving Ukraine in a worse negotiating position than it was a year ago.

But the real question is: did Musk have a choice? There is more than a hint of disingenuousness in Musk’s claim that Starlink is a purely civilian system, or that “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars [but] so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things”. The reality is that SpaceX received around 85% of its initial funding by the US government, and has been working very closely with the US military from its inception, particularly insofar as its satellite services are concerned.

In fact, Starlink was first tested by the US Air Force as a communications system for its aircraft, and the system’s largest known customer today is the Space Development Agency, a Pentagon subsidiary formed as part of the Trump administration’s effort to resurrect the Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed space-based missile defence system intended to protect the US from attack by ballistic nuclear weapons. In December, SpaceX even announced the launch of Starshield, an offshoot dedicated to US government and military programmes, which is likely to now oversee operations in Ukraine.

This story, then, is much more complex than that of a good-willing but naïve entrepreneur who decided to provide his satellite service to Ukraine for humanitarian purposes and ended up embroiled in the war against his will. One might argue that Starlink has been used by Ukraine — and Nato — to do precisely what it was created to do (alongside other commercial uses): to provide US or US-allied forces uninterrupted, hard-to-jam communications and targeting capabilities anywhere in the world. In this sense, this is also a story about the growing — and deliberate, I would argue — blurring of the line between corporate and state power, including in the military sphere, with the precise aim of diffusing and deflecting political responsibility. This is arguably what has allowed the US to effectively colonise low-Earth orbit under the guise of promoting allegedly politically neutral (but in fact state-dependent) private satellite services — first and foremost Starlink.

Here, it is important to appreciate the strategic advantage that, in just a few years, Starlink has achieved over other companies: of the roughly 7,500 active satellites currently orbiting Earth today, more than 4,500 belong to SpaceX. This gives the US, and its national security apparatus, a huge edge. China and other countries (including the EU) are trying to catch up, but they are still very much lagging behind.

This is therefore also a story about the transformation of low-Earth orbit into a territory of geopolitical, and even military, confrontation in its own right. Projections predict between 100,000 and 200,000 satellites in Earth’s orbit in the next 10 years. SpaceX alone plans to put into space a staggering total of 42,000 satellites. Meanwhile, all major countries have already developed anti-satellite systems capable of destroying enemy satellites — an area they are likely to focus on evermore in light of Starlink’s crucial role in the war.

For the past 19 months, we’ve all been focusing on what was happening in the ground in Ukraine; what we didn’t realise was that another war — a satellite war — was also unfolding high above the sky. And in this arms race, Musk is winning.

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