Ukraine could never afford to bet on Starlink

The recent spat over SpaceX’s Starlink and its role in helping Ukraine defend itself against a predatory Russian invasion only seems to be growing more urgent, especially as the Russian government has stepped up attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, targeting electricity, water and communication. Starlink, an internet service powered by a massive “satellite constellation”, is an essential backstop against that destruction. At the start of the Russian invasion, SpaceX sent thousands of its terminals to Ukraine to facilitate communication between Ukraine’s armed forces and help civilians communicate with the outside world, although it would be a long haul to claim that the terminals were donated. , as The Washington Post quickly found out.

Since then, Starlink has also become an essential tool for the Ukrainian military to coordinate thousands of miles of combat theater. Michael Kofman, a defense analyst at CNA Corporation and an expert on the Russian military who is not prone to sweeping statements or hyperbole, admitted in a recent interview: “At the beginning of the war, I was a little dismissive about its effectiveness, but I think it’s been significant over time, and I think it’s played a really important role in what it offers the Ukrainians on the battlefield.”

But now, with the system outage and SpaceX terminally online CEO Elon Musk suggesting his support for Ukraine’s position has waned, it may be time to prove Elon this vital tool against Twitter-driven whims — and seriously think about bringing more of the defense and aerospace industries back into the immediate reach of government. Such vital infrastructure should be nationalized rather than used as a PR football for attention-hungry CEOs.

Ukraine should not be dependent on a system so subject to the infamous whims of one man. The role of tech companies — already notoriously inexplicable — in such vital matters is far too big here, and the world doesn’t need more tech lords falling in love with their “one weird trick” to end global crises. While public-private partnerships are many mythologies, the time has come to consider the renationalization of vital infrastructure, if only to protect them from the kind of silliness that CEOs catch on Twitter.

Understanding what has happened over the past few weeks takes a bit of a detailed timeline, although it’s worth noting that the dates when events are reported aren’t necessarily when they happened.

The issues came into the public eye on Oct. 3 when Musk tweeted a widely derided “peace plan” for Ukraine that would have required it surrender most of the territory Russia annexed over the course of the war, as well as Crimea, which was illegally annexed in 2014. Over the next few days, he doubled down on the plan. Needless to say, the Ukrainians were decidedly cold to the idea; Ukrainian diplomat Andrij Melnyk even told Musk to “Get lost.”

In an apparently unrelated event, on October 7, it was reported that Starlink terminals went down all over the frontline of the Ukrainian advance against Russian forces in the Donbas and further south in Kherson Oblast.

However, the plot thickened on October 11, when adviser Ian Bremmer claimed in his widely read geopolitics newsletter that Musk had tweeted this indecent proposal after a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, and that Musk had told him so. Musk vehemently denied this and eventually the Kremlin too. Then came the news that Musk’s SpaceX said the company could not indefinitely fund the use of the Starlink terminals or supply more to Ukraine unless the US government took over funding for the program from SpaceX.