Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Elon Musk gave Ukrainians a digital lifeline by providing them with the Starlink internet service operated by his rocket company, SpaceX.
But those actions plunged the world’s richest man into international controversy on Friday when Mr Musk said his company could not “indefinitely” fund Ukraine’s use of Starlink, which has become crucial to the Ukrainian army communication as it advances into Russian-occupied territory and defends against continued Russian attacks.
Mr. Musk made his comments on Twitter after CNN reported that SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon last month asking it to take over funding for Ukraine’s use of Starlink. About 20,000 Starlink terminals, designed to work with satellites orbiting in space to provide online access, have been delivered to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February. Mr. Musk, who did not mention the Pentagon, spoke of the service’s funding difficulties.
“SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but neither can it fund the existing system indefinitely *and* ship several thousand additional devices with data usage up to 100 times greater than typical households” , did he declare. wrote.
The situation, which sparked an outcry over how it could hamper Ukrainian forces, was another controversy fomented by Mr Musk, 51, who has become an unlikely provocateur of international geopolitics. The billionaire, who oversees electric car maker Tesla and other companies, is already embroiled in public brouhaha on many other fronts, including a $44 billion deal to buy social media service Twitter.
Last week, Mr Musk drew a fierce rebuke from Ukrainian officials for proposing a peace plan – which included ceding territory to Russia – to end the war. He also suggested in an interview with the Financial Times that tensions between China and Taiwan could be resolved by ceding some control of Taiwan to Beijing.
“Elon Musk is still a risk factor,” said Xiaomeng Lu, director of Eurasia Group, a policy advisory and research group in Washington. “Ukraine is playing with fire.
SpaceX and Mr. Musk did not respond to requests for comment.
In a tweet Friday, Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, struck a conciliatory tone with Mr Musk, saying he had helped the country “survive the most critical moments of the war”.
Mr. Musk revealed that SpaceX was developing the Starlink service in 2015 to provide internet access to individuals and businesses. The company now offers Starlink services in 40 countries. In the United States, the fees for the service are $100 to $500 per month per terminal; the terminals themselves are $600 more. Because the service is delivered by thousands of satellites that cannot be easily destroyed in space, it is harder to disrupt than traditional internet services, making it ideal for wartime use.
Mr Musk’s involvement in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dates back to when Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted him in February. Mr Fedorov asked for help in obtaining Starlink terminals so that Ukrainians could stay online even if Russia damaged the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure.
Mr Musk reacted quickly, with a shipment of Starlink equipment arriving in Ukraine two days later. Mr Zelensky thanked the billionaire and said the service would help maintain communications in cities attacked by the Russians.
The roughly 20,000 terminals currently in use in Ukraine are paid for by SpaceX, at least three Western governments and other allies, according to a SpaceX document shared with The New York Times. About 4,000 of the terminals are used by the Ukrainian military, according to a letter the military sent to SpaceX and shared with The Times. Mr. Musk said SpaceX had waived monthly fees for the service.
But in April, Mr Musk made it clear his aid would go no further. On Twitter, he said that as “free speech absolutisthe would not use Starlink to block Russian state media that disseminates propaganda and disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
Last week, Mr Musk said the Ukraine operation had cost SpaceX $80 million to date. On Friday, he added that the “burn” for the project, which refers to the money repeatedly spent by SpaceX, was around $20 million per month.
“In addition to terminals, we must create, launch, maintain and resupply satellites and ground stations,” he tweeted. “We also had to defend against cyberattacks and jamming, which are becoming increasingly difficult.”
Any removal of Starlink would be a blow to the Ukrainian military, which depended on the equipment for internet connectivity, especially given the Russian military’s ability to jam communications and leave swaths of Ukrainian territory behind. without electricity. The Ukrainian military used Starlink, which Russian troops were unable to hack, for everything from calling for artillery support to messaging loved ones back home.
Starlink terminals have a small rectangular antenna that can be powered by car batteries. Ukrainian soldiers at the front figured out how to camouflage the device by burying it in the ground so that the terminals were protected from shelling but still able to receive and transmit data.
In July, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, a Ukrainian general, sent a letter to SpaceX and Mr. Musk, asking for 6,700 additional Starlink terminals.
“Starlink endpoints have the potential to be the primary infrastructure layer underlying the majority of communications along the chain of command,” reads the letter, which was shared with The Times. The army did not receive the units.
In mid-September, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive and advanced into southern territory that had previously been occupied by Russia. The Ukrainian military has lost access to Starlink service in some areas near the front lines, three people with knowledge of the matter said. Service has been restored to key locations, one said.
A few days after the start of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, a Russian delegation to the United Nations suggested that Starlink satellites could become a military target. On Twitter, Mr Musk insisted that Starlink was for peaceful use only.
Mr. Musk then began to promote his proposed peace plan between Russia and Ukraine. He called on Ukraine to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to agree to new referendums in Russian-occupied Ukraine that would let residents choose who should control these territories. He created a Twitter poll asking if “the will of the people” in the occupied areas should decide whether they were part of Ukraine or Russia.
Mr Zelensky posted his own poll on Twitter, asking: “Which Elon Musk do you like more: the one who supports Ukraine or the one who supports Russia?”
Mr Musk replied by tweeting: “I am still very supportive of Ukraine, but I am convinced that a massive escalation of war will cause great harm to Ukraine and possibly the world.”
The Kremlin welcomed Mr. Musk’s proposal.
“It is very positive that a person like Elon Musk is trying to seek a peaceful settlement,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “When it comes to referendums, people have expressed their opinion, and there could be nothing else.”
On Friday, Pentagon officials said there had been discussions about how to help Ukraine’s military stay in line during the war. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Defense Ministry officials were hopeful Mr Musk and Ukrainian officials could find a way forward, but added that the possibility of the Pentagon footing the bill of Starlink service in Ukraine was not out of the question. the question.
“The department continues to work with industry to explore solutions for Ukraine’s armed forces as they repel Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression,” said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in an email. “We have nothing further to add at this time.”
Ms Lu of the Eurasia Group said Ukraine likely had few options other than to maintain a friendly relationship with Mr Musk because of its control over Starlink. Mr. Musk owns 44% of SpaceX, which is privately held.
“Even if they are unhappy with the situation, they have to deal with it because they are so dependent on technology,” Ms Lu said.
The report was provided by Adam Satarian, Julian Barnes, Michael Schwirtz and Thomas Gibbons-Neff.
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