Whatever the fuss about Elon Musk, Starlink is an absolute must in Ukraine

DNIBRO, Ukraine — New details about how Elon Musk intercepted Starlink satellite Internet service to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian ships in Crimea last year are a reminder of how important the service is to Kyiv’s forces — and on which success on the battlefield depends in part. Wishes of a Mercurial Billionaire.

Musk’s company SpaceX sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine after Russia invaded in February 2022, when Moscow quickly cut all other services. Since then, high-speed satellite terminals have become the backbone of the Ukrainian military’s digital communications. Nestled in trenches, camouflaged on armored vehicles and humming in dusty command centers, the tiny Wi-Fi terminals are so essential that many soldiers say they risk their lives if they don’t have them.

Modern war zones are immersed in digital communications, requiring fast, secure internet. In Ukraine, Starlink’s data stream helps pipe in drone feeds from across the battlefield, enabling commanders to see enemy forces in real time and coordinate artillery strikes much faster than relaying the same information over radios.

Ukraine has about 42,000 Starlink terminals, officials said have said, providing military, government and civilian communications as Russia relentlessly attacks civilian infrastructure. Terminals play an increasingly important role in Ukraine’s counterattack, providing portable communication options in rural areas that are too remote or in rural areas where cellular towers are damaged and destroyed.

The terminals also offer connectivity to smartphones and tablets, which do everything from helping soldiers stay up-to-date on team chats to running apps that help calculate targeting information for howitzer batteries. Soldiers often use the same Starlink-connected devices to communicate with loved ones at home or abroad and upload battlefield videos to social media.

In a recent operation in the northeastern Luhansk region near Russian lines, a Starlink terminal pumped Wi-Fi data to a three-person attack drone team, allowing the pilot to monitor a team chat that provided real-time updates on enemy locations and movements. Viktor Stelmak, head of the 68th Jaeger Regiment’s attack drone unit, used that information to deploy several drones and drop grenades on enemy positions. Several Russian soldiers were wounded in the attacks, which were observed by Washington Post reporters.

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Details of Musk’s role in limiting Starlink service are included in Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the billionaire entrepreneur. An excerpt from the book was published in a Washington Post opinion piece. The book details Musk’s role in severing Starling First reported via CNN

Musk shut down the internet as the Ukrainian military attacked the Russian navy

Revelations in Isaacson’s book have reignited concerns about the influence SpaceX and Musk, as its owner, have over the war in Ukraine.

In October 2022, armed maritime drones were ready to attack the Russian Navy. Life history. Instead, the drones “lost connection and benignly drifted ashore” because Musk secretly ordered engineers to shut down Starlink service near occupied Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

Ukrainian and American officials scrambled to restore the service, according to the book, appealing directly to Musk. Musk eventually agreed. “There was an urgent request from government officials to operate the Starling up to Sevastopol,” Musk said Friday on X, formerly known as Twitter. He’s referring to the Crimean port city that has long been the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Russia maintained the headquarters under a lease agreement with Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In a conversation with Isaacson, Musk expressed reluctance to use his service for such an attack. “The obvious objective is to sink the bulk of the Russian fleet at anchor,” Musk told Isaacson. “If I had agreed to their request, SpaceX would be openly complicit in the escalation of a major war and conflict.”

SpaceX did not return a request for comment. Ukrainian officials note that Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine as a whole in 2022 were illegal acts of aggression and war crimes under international law.

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On Thursday, Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Musk’s decision to cut Starlink service near Crimea and other occupied parts of Ukraine led to civilian deaths.

“As a result, civilians, children are killed,” Podoliak posted on X.

“It’s the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego,” Podoliak continued. “However, the question remains: Why do some people want to defend war criminals and their willingness to kill so fiercely? Do they now realize that they are doing evil and promoting evil?”

Ukraine’s digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, whose ministry deals directly with Starling, did not respond to a request for comment.

Musk’s ability to control Ukrainian military operations has alarmed some corners of the Pentagon, which has sent billions of dollars in weapons to help Ukraine fight a Russian invasion. The defense industry has struggled to rein in Musk, despite agreeing to pay expensive Starlink service bills following his threat to stop providing the service for free.

Russia learned from mistakes to slow down Ukraine’s counterattack

Ukrainian troops have integrated Starling into every corner of the conflict, relying on the service for any mission that requires digital communication.

An Air Force veteran with the call sign Labrador, using the gaming term “IMBA” or imbalance, said Starlink offers a significant advantage over Russian capabilities. Multiple drone feeds on a single screen provide situational awareness to commanders and scouts, Labrador said. Surveillance drones that spot artillery fire can transmit fast and accurate impact locations, allowing howitzer crews to quickly adjust their aim and engage the target.

Labrador, like the other soldiers, spoke on condition that he be identified only by his call sign, in accordance with Ukrainian military rules.

Losing Starling would force Ukraine to fall back on traditional communications such as radio or other inferior alternatives, he said. It can be done, but it will require difficult trade-offs. For example, he said, when digital communication is used between the trenches, soldiers may have to give up their relative safety to transmit information orally.

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“These are additional risks,” he said. “Not having an alternative to starling can be said to increase the level of deaths and injuries.”

Internet access through Starlink enabled soldiers to access training manuals and get more information about advanced weapons and equipment received from the West, said Rusin, deputy commander of the Carpathian Sich 49th Infantry Battalion.

“If they stop working at some point, it won’t be the end of the world, but it will significantly worsen our situation going forward, impairing our performance.”

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Starlink also provides an important lifeline to the public.

A year ago, after a surprise Ukrainian breakthrough, parts of the country’s northeast were liberated, as civilians emerged from a Russian-controlled information bubble. For months, most cell and internet services were cut, leaving them unable to communicate with loved ones elsewhere in Ukraine. Even after the towns and cities came back under Ukrainian control, for days they could not contact their families to confirm their survival.

In Izyum, for example, when Ukrainian soldiers set up base in the town and docked their Starling — slightly damaged by earlier shelling — locals gathered to network and talk to relatives, sometimes for the first time in the early days of Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

War reporters, including The Washington Post, are using Starlink as the only way to transmit news reports, images and videos from areas without internet service.

According to US intelligence estimates leaked by The Washington Post, the Ukrainian use of the Starling has drawn a strong response from Moscow.

The Russian military has been testing ways to disrupt communications in Ukraine for months, classified documents said, but the documents did not conclude whether the tests were successful or intended.

Siobhan O’Grady and David L. in Kiev. Stern contributed to this report.

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