This is the latest row over SpaceX’s Starlink and its role in helping Ukraine defend itself from a rapacious Russian invasion seems to grow only more urgent, especially as the Russian government has stepped up attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, targeting electricity, water, and communications. Starlink, an internet service powered by a vast “satellite constellation,” is an essential backstop against that destruction. SpaceX donated thousands of its terminals in Ukraine during the Russian invasion. The Washington Post quickly discovered.
Starlink, which has been used by the Ukrainian military for thousands of km of combat theatre coordination since then, is now an indispensable tool. Michael Kofman, a defense analyst at CNA Corporation and an expert on the Russian military who’s not given to sweeping pronouncements or hyperbole, admitted in a recent interview: “Early on in the war I was a bit dismissive of its efficacy but I think it’s grown considerably over time, and I think it’s actually had a real significant role in what it provides the Ukrainians on the battlefield.”
But now, with outages plaguing the system and SpaceX’s terminally online CEO, Elon Musk, suggesting that his support for Ukraine’s position has waned, it might be time to Elon-proof this vital tool against Twitter-driven whims—and to think seriously about bringing more of the defense and space industries back into the direct purview of government. These vital infrastructures should be made national, not used to attract attention from CEOs.
Ukraine should not be dependent on a system so subject to one man’s infamously mercurial whims. The role of tech companies—already infamously unaccountable—in such vital causes is far too great here, and the world does not need any more tech barons falling in love with their “one weird trick” to end global crises. Though public-private partnerships are much mythologized, the time has come for considering the re-nationalization of vital infrastructure, if only to shield them from the kind of silliness that catches CEOs’ fancies on Twitter.
Understanding what’s happened over the past few weeks requires a bit of a detailed timeline—though it’s worth noting that the dates on which events were reported are not necessarily when they happened.
The trouble burst out into public view on October 3 when Musk tweeted out a widely-mocked “peace plan” for Ukraine that would’ve required it to surrender most of the territory Russia has annexed over the course of the war, as well as Crimea, which was illegally annexed in 2014. Over the following days, he increased his commitment to the plan. The idea was met with a cold reception by the Ukrainian diplomat Andrij Melnyk who even advised Musk to reconsider. “fuck off.”
An apparently unrelated incident occurred on October 7. Starlink terminals reported experiencing outages across all front lines of Ukrainian advances against Russian forces.
On October 11, however, the plot got more complicated when Ian Bremmer, a consultant in geopolitics, claimed that Musk tweeted his indecent suggestion after having a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also stated that Musk told him that. The Kremlin eventually agreed to Musk’s denial. Then news broke that Musk’s SpaceX was saying the company could not fund the use of the Starlink terminals indefinitely or provide any more to Ukraine unless the US government took over funding for the program from SpaceX.