CNN reports that Elon Musk personally instructed SpaceX employees to disable Starlink to prevent a Ukrainian attack on the Russian naval fleet in Crimea last year. SpaceX has spent millions of dollars of the company’s own money to help Kyiv’s military stay connected on the battlefield since the Russian invasion last year. However, the company draws a red line in participating in attacks with its technology.
CNN got the story from an advanced copy of Walter Isaacson’s forthcoming biography of Musk. In Isaacson’s interpretation of the incident, Kyiv made an “emergency request” to SpaceX for Starlink to expand the reach of communications to Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. The clear implication was that Ukraine intended to launch an attack on the Russian naval fleet.
Isaacson says after Starlink denied Kyiv’s request, an explosive submarine “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.” Isaacson notes that Musk was contacted by top officials in Washington after the incident, but CNN did not report the nature of those discussions.
On Thursday, Musk gave his account of the potential Ukrainian attack. “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,” he wrote on X. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”
According to SpaceX’s terms of service, the decision not to authorize Ukraine’s emergency request is company policy and US law. “Starlink is not designed or intended for use with or in offensive or defensive weaponry or other comparable end-uses. Custom modifications of the Starlink Kits or Services for military end-uses or military end-users may transform the items into products controlled under U.S. export control laws, specifically the International Traffic in Arms Regulations or the Export Administration Regulations requiring authorizations from the United States government for the export, support, or use outside the United States. Starlink aftersales support to customers is limited exclusively to standard commercial service support. At its sole discretion, Starlink may refuse to provide technical support to any modified Starlink products and is grounds for termination of this Agreement.”
Musk has faced intense scrutiny for the event. Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, attacked the SpaceX founder on X. “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, [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,” he wrote, “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 realize that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?”
The ire for Musk was compounded by journalists suggesting SpaceX had prevented the Ukrainian attack by turning off or deactivating Starlink. The Daily Beast reported, “Musk switched off his Starlink satellite communications network last year in order to prevent a Ukrainian drone attack on Russian warships.”
CNN also noted that Musk laments having his technology involved in the 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,” Musk reportedly said to Isaacson.