Why Ukraine Is Stuck With Elon (for Now)

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. On Feb. 26, two days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted at the world’s wealthiest man.

“While your rockets successfully land from space—Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people!” Fedorov wrote. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations,” he added.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites deployed relatively close to the Earth’s surface through a series of rocket launches since mid-2019 by parent company SpaceX. The company’s internet services are available to individuals, businesses, and even airlines, with costs starting at $110 per month. The hardware used to connect to them, small satellite dishes that the company calls terminals, are priced at $599 and up. Starlink’s satellites operate in lower-Earth orbit (LEO)—within 1,200 miles of the Earth’s surface—far closer than the geosynchronous satellites deployed by rival companies that provide internet connectivity. That means it takes less time for data to travel from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.

Musk replied to Fedorov’s tweet the same day, informing him that Starlink’s service was “now active in Ukraine,” indicating that its satellites would start beaming internet to the country, and pledging to send more terminals. More than eight months on, Starlink has played a vital role in keeping Ukraine’s military and citizens online as the war continues to rage and Russia targets Ukraine’s telecommunications and electricity infrastructure.

“It was the beginning of a great story, because Starlink technologies changed this war,” Fedorov told an audience at the Web Summit in Lisbon in early November. The satellite internet service has not only kept Ukrainian citizens and businesses online but has also been critical to the war effort, helping troops to communicate with each other on the battlefield and even enabling drones and weapons systems to stay operational.

But Starlink’s centrality to Ukraine’s war effort raises the question of why the U.S. government hasn’t provided this service, when it has given Ukraine more than $20 billion so far in military and humanitarian aid. Is Ukraine’s dependence on one company—effectively one man—to stay online in the middle of a war ultimately a good thing?

Starlink has plenty of advantages over other communications systems beyond just the lower-orbiting satellites. Its terminals are also smaller and easier to set up than the typical satellite dish required to get connected.

“They’re about the size of a medium pizza box,” said Andrew Cavalier, an analyst at the technology intelligence firm ABI Research who focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. This makes them easier to deploy in a wartime setting, but also, he said, “having smaller terminals means, logistically speaking, more terminals, better coverage between ground and air.”

There are companies working on similar LEO communications, including U.K.-based OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper (bankrolled by Musk’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese firms GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But those firms are still in various stages of starting commercial operations, Cavalier said, giving Musk and Starlink a major head start that its use in the Russia-Ukraine war will only consolidate.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said Starlink has played a crucial role in helping Ukraine to mount its defense against the Russian invasion, particularly in the early days of the war. “Our government has been able to be operational because I had Starlink over my head,” she said. “This has been a turning point in our survival.”

But Musk’s Ukrainian internet is not all charity. According to multiple reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine have been at least partially paid for by the United States, United Kingdom, and Poland. A spokesperson for the Polish government confirmed that Poland has paid around $5.9 million for Starlink services, with support from Polish state enterprises.

Washington has already paid for a small portion of the Starlink terminals in Ukraine. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1,508 terminals in March for a total of $3 million, according to a USAID spokesperson. The agency also delivered an additional 3,667 terminals that SpaceX donated, with the company paying for internet service for all the terminals.

“USAID has purchased Starlink terminals, but has not paid for Starlink service,” the spokesperson said. “Like many mobile network markets, the most important cost factor is not the device itself, but the service, which SpaceX is offering for free for all devices.”

SpaceX, the U.S. Defense Department, and the U.K. Defence Ministry did not respond to requests for additional comment on funding for Starlink. Musk tweeted in mid-October that less than half of the 25,300 Starlink terminals in Ukraine were paying for the service.

But concerns remain about putting all of Ukraine’s wartime communications needs in a single, mercurial basket; a sudden cutoff could be devastating. That happened in late October, when 1,300 Starlink terminals went offline, reportedly due to a lack of funding. The Ukrainian military suffered a communications outage as a result, just weeks after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it could no longer continue to fund Ukraine’s satellite services and asking the Pentagon to foot the bill.

Musk later walked back those demands, tweeting that Starlink would “keep funding Ukraine … for free” and subsequently that SpaceX had “withdrawn its request for funding,” though negotiations between the company and the U.S. government have reportedly continued.

Stefanishyna, speaking to reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on Nov. 19, also said Musk had confirmed to her government that he would continue financing Starlink in Ukraine. “We have the Twitter guarantee of Elon Musk when he confirmed that he’s going to finance [Starlink], and he talked to our minister of digital transformation. So we consider it a deal,” she said.

But Stefanishyna also voiced doubts over how committed the billionaire magnate was to honoring those deals, given his penchant for lurching suddenly between new business ventures and walking back on major deals in the past. She said Ukraine is making plans to complement Starlink with other systems, just in case Musk pulls out of this deal as well.

“Given this huge range of instability in the position of SpaceX’s CEO from willingness and then to unwillingness to continue financial support, we are doing contingency planning for ourselves,” she said. Satellite companies that operate from geosynchronous orbit could potentially serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says it is already supporting the country by connecting refugees in neighboring Slovakia), but setting up and maintaining the infrastructure to provide those connections would likely be more onerous than the Starlink experience.

“From a commercial perspective, what Starlink has is unique in the marketplace right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, adding that U.S. military communications are usually built and designed for more specific purposes and thus have narrower applicability.

“The US military is going to have requirements and needs that are different than a purely civilian application,” he said in an email. “Starlink is kind of general purpose. … It’s more readily usable for somebody like Ukraine—it’s up there, it’s already a commercial product, and so it’s easier,” he added.

Having more options may be worth the heavy lift, however.

“From [Ukraine’s] standpoint, diversifying their network infrastructure is probably a better idea … just because if Elon Musk decides he doesn’t want to provide connectivity anymore on a whim they totally go blackout,” Cavalier said.

Though Musk has a higher profile than most executives—especially after his acquisition of Twitter—the involvement of private companies in military conflicts is not new, nor are fights over who will pay for those services. But the Pentagon usually deals with traditional military contractors, not eccentric billionaires who float Russian talking points in the middle of Ukraine’s existential struggle.

“It is not unheard of for other contractors to have friction with the US government,” Metrick said. The difference here is that Musk is not “the CEO of a more traditional military contractor.”

And Starlink went to war in a unique way, too.

“We often go to the commercial sector to get additional spaceborne communications access. We have literally done that in every significant conflict,” said retired Adm. Michael Rogers, the former head of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. “What made this unusual was, in this case, the commercial provider entered the field directly.”

The U.S. government has wireless communications capabilities, both through its own satellites and through partnerships with prominent commercial providers including Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat, and Knight Sky. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said on Nov. 1 that the department was in talks with “SpaceX and others” over Ukraine’s satellite internet requirements but declined to share further details.

But the United States, unlike SpaceX, could offer Ukraine other things it needs beyond broadband—such as anti-tank missiles or long-range artillery.

“It’s not a question to me if it’s a lack of alternatives—rather in some ways to me it reflects the situation,” Rogers said. “If you look at the support the United States was providing, significant communications capacity was not, I believe, one of the initial core areas where the U.S. was providing additional support.”

Starlink stepping in to fill the gap when it did may have presented the path of least resistance for all parties involved, considering how much strain the conflict has put on U.S. and NATO military stockpiles. The company’s involvement may have allowed the United States to provide other types of military aid (of which satellite communications only constituted a small fraction) “without committing resources that are very finite, that we have a high demand for in our own military,” Rogers added.

The big question now is what happens next. Rogers said the immediate focus for the U.S. and Ukrainian governments remains simply maintaining Ukraine’s access to Starlink’s service but added that the current situation will likely also spark conversations on how to make a full-spectrum military procurement process predictable and sustainable in the future.

“The commercial sector is developing these amazing capabilities that historically were in the purview largely of governments but now are commercially available to any user—commercial or government—if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. “So the government’s got to figure out how to create mechanisms so they can very quickly bring that kind of capability online when they need it and how to sustain it over time.”

Robbie Gramer contributed to this report. 

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