I n a world where technology often crosses paths with politics, influential individuals, such as Elon Musk, find themselves at critical crossroads.

The latest revelation from Walter Isaacson’s biography on Musk, titled Elon Musk, dives into a controversial decision he made concerning his satellite communication system, Starlink, during heightened tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

The Crimean Incident

Starlink services were cut off near Crimea during a Ukrainian drone operation, Isaacson writes. According to the book, Musk did this to prevent a Ukrainian drone assault on Russian ships. An incident that might have seemed like a scene from a spy movie saw the Ukrainian drones losing connectivity and eventually landing ashore without causing any harm.

Why would a tech titan interfere in a military operation? The biography explains that Musk feared Russia, under Putin’s leadership, might retaliate with nuclear force if Ukraine carried out an assault on Russian-held Crimea. Such an explosive response concerned Musk enough to step in.

CNN, referencing the biography by Walter Isaacson – known for his highly regarded biographies on Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein – highlighted Musk’s alleged statement indicating that Ukraine might be “going too far” in threatening to inflict a “strategic defeat” on Russia. While these actions had been rumoured before, this is the first time specific details surrounding the event have come to light.

The exact date of the planned Ukrainian operation remains unknown. However, Musk’s purported description of it as a “mini Pearl Harbor” underscores the severity of the situation, especially considering that Ukrainian forces were within their international rights.

Walter Isaacson’s biography on Elon Musk. | CREDIT: AMAZON

Musk’s Admission

In response to a social media post summarising the story, Elon Musk clarified on Friday on X (Twitter) that the story was true, explaining that the Starlink regions mentioned were not activated.

He also acknowledged receiving an emergency request from government authorities in Kyiv to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol, with the intent to sink the Russian fleet. Musk also admitted having declined the request not to make SpaceX “complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

“The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything.

“There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol. The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

— Elon Musk

Since his admission, the Ukrainian government has expressed anger and blamed Musk for the deaths of civilians, accusing him of ignorance and ego.

“Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake.

“By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military(!) fleet via Starlink interference, [Elon Musk] allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego.

“However, the question still remains: why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder? And do they now realise that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?”

— Mykhailo Podolyak, Senior Adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

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Musk’s Involvement

Elon Musk initially decided to support Ukraine by supplying Starlink equipment to restore disrupted communication channels after the Russian invasion. Yet, as Ukraine successfully defended against Russia’s initial onslaught and began to retaliate, Musk reportedly reevaluated his stance.

In a candid conversation with Isaacson, Musk expressed his disbelief at Starlink’s unforeseen military involvement:

“How am I in this war?

“Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”

— Elon Musk

Ukraine’s Plea

As the tension grew, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, reached out to Musk by text message. Fedorov’s message underscored the business magnate’s significant role as a global tech influencer, urging him to reconsider his decision to halt Starlink’s services.

“I just want you — the person who is changing the world through technology — to know this.”

— Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Deputy PM

Despite the plea, and after acknowledging the impressive design of the submarine drones, Musk allegedly made it clear that he would not reinstate satellite coverage for Crimea due to his belief that Ukraine’s actions were crossing a line and inviting strategic defeat.

— Starlink Availability Map —

Starlink is totally inactive in Crimea. | CREDIT: STARLINK

Is Elon Musk Pro-Russia?

Elon Musk once suggested on X (Twitter) that parts of eastern Ukraine be given to Russia in a peace deal, mirroring the sentiments expressed by some Russian officials. That was a week after having expressed clear support for Vladimir Putin during a conference in Aspen, attended by prominent business and political figures.

“He was onstage, and he said, ‘We should be negotiating. Putin wants peace — we should be negotiating peace with Putin.’

“Musk seemed to have bought what Putin was selling, hook, line, and sinker.”

— Reid Hoffman, co-founder of PayPal with Elon Musk

More recently, Colin Kahl, former under-secretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon, told the New Yorker that Elon Musk had disclosed that he had personally communicated with Vladimir Putin and that the conversation centered around the satellite-based internet service (Starlink) offered by SpaceX to the Ukrainian military.

“He said, ‘Well, I had this great conversation with Putin.’ And we were, like, ‘Oh, dear, this is not good.’

“My inference was that he was getting nervous that Starlink’s involvement was increasingly seen in Russia as enabling the Ukrainian war effort, and was looking for a way to placate Russian concerns.”

— Colin Kahl, former under-secretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon

SpaceX had also previously issued an ultimatum to the Pentagon stating that unless it assumed the cost of providing the internet service in Ukraine, which amounted to approximately four hundred million dollars per year, Musk’s space and communications company would terminate access – a significant financial burden for the Pentagon.

“We started to get a little panicked.

“Musk could turn it off at any given moment. And that would have real operational impact for the Ukrainians.

“Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had on this issue.”

— Colin Kahl, former under-secretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon

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Following CNN’s reporting of the ultimatum, Elon Musk changed his mind, took to X (Twitter), and posted:

“The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free”

— Elon Musk

A clear shift in his stance on the matter. But a shift that Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, angered, according to Walter Isaacson’s book, as Shotwell told me that the Pentagon had prepared a $145 million check for SpaceX, prior to Elon Musk’s decision to reverse the Pentagon contract.

“The Pentagon had a $145 million check ready to hand to me, literally. Then Elon succumbed to the bullshit on Twitter and to the haters at the Pentagon who leaked the story.”

— Gwynne Shotwell, quoted by Walter Isaacson

“If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” Elon Musk explained. | CREDIT: UNSPLASH/JEROME BOURSIER

Geopolitical Risks With Tech Billionaires

During a podcast interview last year, Elon Musk was asked if he has more influence than the American government. Without hesitation, the richest man in the world responded by saying, “In some ways.”

Elon Musk’s decisions since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, in February 2022 – first showing unreserved support for the Ukrainian cause, then growing increasingly uneasy with Starlink’s technology being utilised for warfare – underscore the significant influence and responsibility tech magnates have in our interconnected world.

When technology and geopolitics collide, the ramifications extend beyond digital screens, reverberating in real-world events and decisions.

PMP Magazine



Text: This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 8 September 2023.
Cover: Dreamstime/Peter Kováč.

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