CNN reports that a portion of author Walter Isaacson’s upcoming biography of the man who made Twitter, the site now known as X, safe for antisemitism shows that Elon Musk had a direct hand in thwarting a Ukrainian attack on the Russian Navy. His actions may have prolonged the war and cost the lives of Ukrainian civilians. They certainly assisted Russia’s ability to terrorize both Ukraine and the Black Sea.
Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine came just as satellite internet service through SpaceX’s Starlink system was becoming widely available. At first, access to this new means of communication seemed like a godsend for Ukraine. The terminals were relatively small, relatively secure, and easily set up in forward areas without a lot of infrastructure. With Russia regularly bombing Ukraine’s electrical grid and frequently targeting communications hubs, Starlink offered a way for Ukraine’s civilian and military agencies to stay in contact even when towers and lines were in rubble.
Then SpaceX began turning off terminals, blocking access in some areas of Ukraine, and limiting Ukraine’s use of the system. All of this may have culminated in Musk single-handedly deciding to prevent Ukraine from striking Russian warships off the Crimean coast.
Russia currently has a fleet of nearly 50 warships in the Black Sea. Those warships have frequently served as missile platforms for launching attacks on Ukrainian cities and are responsible for some of the most horrific attacks on civilian homes in the war. The ships have also been used to stop commercial traffic on the Black Sea and threaten ships hauling grain from Ukrainian ports.
Ukraine has successfully made use of drone boats to attack this fleet. That includes an attack last month in which a Ukrainian drone caused extensive damage to a Russian warship followed by an attack on the Kerch Bridge, which Russia uses to transport weapons and ammunition into Crimea and other areas in southern Ukraine. An attack last year succeeded in damaging the current flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.
Russia has managed to stop some of these surface drones, but Ukraine has developed something potentially even more effective in taking out Russian warships: submarine drones. These include the Toloka, which was developed last year, and the newer, larger Marichka. Operating with just a small camera and communications pod above water, these drones could be much more effective in getting past Russian defenses.
For Ukraine, taking out these ships is not a matter of offense. They’re not trying to conquer the Black Sea. They’re trying to end a threat that can, at any moment, throw hypersonic weapons into the middle of their cities, resulting in massive civilian casualties. The naval drones that Ukraine is employing in this task are designed specifically to address removing this threat.
According to the CNN report, Musk explicitly ordered engineers to “turn off his company’s Starlink satellite communications network near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet.” That left the drones, which had already been sent on their way toward Russian ships, drifting without targets or control. They reportedly “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.”
In other words, Musk intervened in the battle and provided a big win for Russia, defeating months of construction and planning on the part of Ukraine. That action preserved Russian warships, which are regularly attacking civilian targets in Ukrainian cities.
According to Isaacson’s book, Musk claimed that he took this action because he was concerned that Russia would respond with a nuclear attack, a threat that is often made by Russian state media and propagandists. It’s not surprising that Musk would parrot this claim since he has admitted that he has directly spoken with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Apparently, phone calls with Putin are not the only contact Musk has with Russia. According to CNN’s reading of Isaacson’s book, those nuclear fears were “driven home by Musk’s conversations with senior Russian officials.”
Last October, Musk provided his own plan for ending the war in Ukraine. That plan involved Ukraine giving territory to Russia, including saying that Crimea should be “formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).” Musk’s plan also included Ukraine agreeing to not join NATO or the EU. This plan absolutely mirrored talking points that have appeared on Russia propaganda outlets, and their use by Musk reportedly horrified both some of his fans and his employees.
When Musk ran a poll on Twitter asking about support for this plan, it lost decisively. Musk then blamed that loss on bots. His Twitter poll also brought a robust response from Ukrainian diplomat Andrij Melnyk.
Musk made a big deal of donating Starlink terminals to Ukraine, insisting—even though Ukraine was paying for the service—that it was costing SpaceX too much to continue. Soon after, SpaceX turned off 1,300 terminals in Ukraine even though those terminals had been purchased by Ukraine, not donated. The Pentagon also pays SpaceX for the Starlink service as part of a contract specifically awarded to provide communication to Ukraine.
But Musk did more than whine about the cost: In February, Foreign Policy reported that SpaceX was limiting the use of Starlink in “offensive” operations, cutting off Ukrainian drones that had been designed around the service. SpaceX also used geofencing to wall off certain areas where Starlink would not operate, which reportedly affected Ukraine’s abilities to operate in some areas of the front. In a war where the use and significance of drones is constantly increasing and where secure communications are vital, this is a significant threat to Ukraine’s effectiveness.
The days of Musk looking like a villain from a James Bond film are definitely approaching the middle. That a single man can determine the outcome of a military operation planned over months, one that could have resulted in saving the lives of Ukrainian civilians and possibly made a significant effect on the outcome of Putin’s illegal invasion, shows just how broken our system is. And it certainly shows the peril of allowing someone who is so prone to believing in conspiracy theories, who embraces white supremacy, and who is so supportive of authoritarianism to be in any position of power, much less one that could determine the future for millions of people.
It’s the Ukraine Update episode! Kerry and Markos talk about what is happening in Ukraine, what needs to be done, and why the fate of Ukraine is tied to democracy’s fate in 2024.