Elon Musk refused Ukraine’s request to activate Starlink network, fearing ‘major’ act of war

From Reuters,
Published by ABC, 9 September 2023

Elon Musk says he refused a Ukrainian request to activate his Starlink satellite network in Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol to aid an attack on Russia’s fleet there, saying he feared complicity in a “major” act of war.

The billionaire businessman made the comment about last year’s request on his social media platform X, after CNN cited an excerpt from a new biography of Mr Musk that said he ordered the Starlink network to be turned off near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt the Ukrainian sneak attack.

In the post on X, formerly known as Twitter,  Mr Musk said he had no choice but to reject an emergency request from Ukraine “to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol”.

He did not give the date of the request and the excerpt did not specify it.

“The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor,” Mr Musk wrote. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

Russia, which seized the strategic Crimea peninsula in 2014, based its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and has used the fleet in a de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports since its full-scale invasion in 2022.

The Russian fleet fired cruise missiles at Ukrainian civilian targets, and Kyiv had launched attacks on Russian ships using maritime drones.

According to CNN, Walter Isaacson’s new biography titled Elon Musk, to be released by Simon & Schuster on Tuesday, said when Ukrainian explosive-laden submarine drones last year approached the Russian fleet, they “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly”.

It said Mr Musk’s decision, which left Ukrainian officials begging him to turn the satellites back on, was driven by an acute fear that Russia would respond to a Ukrainian attack with nuclear weapons.

According to the biography, this was based on Mr Musk’s conversations with senior Russian officials and his fears of a “mini-Pearl Harbour”.

In August, a Russian warship was seriously damaged in a Ukrainian naval drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea navy base at Novorossiysk, the first time the Ukrainian navy has projected its power so far from the country’s shores.

Through private donations and under a separate contract with a US foreign aid agency, SpaceX has been providing Ukrainians and the country’s military with Starlink internet service, a fast-growing network of more than 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, since the beginning of the war in 2022.

In June, the Pentagon said SpaceX’s Starlink had a department of defence contract to provide satellite services for Ukraine.

An officer in the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate GUR, Vadym Skybytsky, commented on the reports on Ukrainian national television but did not directly address whether Mr Musk had declined Ukraine’s request. 

However, he said it was necessary to investigate and to “appoint a specific group to examine what happened”.

A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on Mr Musk’s decision but said, “The department continues to work closely with commercial industry to ensure we have the right capabilities the Ukrainians need to defend themselves.”

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