Commentary: Elon Musk has the power to block Ukraine attacks on Russian ships. Does he know how to use it?
With Starlink satellites, the course of the Ukraine war might have been very different. But now, an amateur military strategist is making life-and-death calls, says Marc Champion for Bloomberg Opinion.
LONDON: According to excerpts from a new biography, Elon Musk last year curtailed his Starlink satellite service to prevent Ukraine using it for a sea drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. He worried the move could become a mini-Pearl Harbour and even trigger nuclear retaliation.
“How am I in this war?’’ he’s said to have asked the book’s author, Walter Isaacson. It was a good question and has a simple answer: Musk is in this war because he did the right thing 19 months ago.
When Russia invaded its neighbour in February 2022, one of the advancing military’s first moves was to neutralise the Ukrainian army’s communications system. The government in Kyiv turned to the world’s richest human because he was probably the only man on the planet capable of providing a solution at the speed and scale that was needed.
Musk is by now such a politically polarising figure that he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves for stepping up then, or for the way he followed through on his Starlink donations to make the civilian system workable in conditions of war. Without his satellites and batteries, the course of Ukraine’s fight for survival might have been very different.
NOT THE RIGHT PERSON MAKING BATTLEFIELD DECISIONS
None of that, however, makes Musk a foreign policy genius, a shrewd diplomat or the right person to be making battlefield decisions for Ukraine.
He has corrected one aspect of the episode’s account by Isaacson: Musk said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that he didn’t cut Starlink’s service, as described, but rather refused a request to extend it to Crimea for the attack. But he hasn’t otherwise challenged the account’s accuracy.
The Pearl Harbour analogy, like so many made about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is clearly misguided. Japan’s surprise 1941 attack on the US fleet in Hawaii started a war where there was none.
Ukraine was planning to hit the Russian fleet harbored in Crimea seven months after being invaded – not to mention that Crimea itself was occupied Ukrainian territory. As Mykhailo Podolyak, a de facto spokesman for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a tweet after the book’s revelations, the ships targeted had been firing cruise missiles on a nearly daily basis against cities across Ukraine.
WORRY ABOUT ESCALATION
Musk’s worry about escalation was well founded. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Russia has responded by upping the tempo of long-range missile attacks when Ukraine has done things like sink the Moskva, once the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, or damage the Kerch bridge that connects Crimea to mainland Russia – a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At this level, whether to risk retaliation should surely be a calculation for the Ukrainians to make.
Musk’s fear, though, was that the escalation might be nuclear – a threat he had heard directly from the Russian ambassador to Washington, according to the book. He worried about being the businessman who helped start World War III.
A little thought should have made him sceptical of that idea. Ukraine sank the Moskva in April 2022, just two months into the war. There was no nuclear response then, and there was no reason to believe hitting smaller ships would cause one in September 2022.
A year later, Ukraine has crossed numerous so-called red lines, including around Crimea, and it’s clear that if Putin really is willing to order a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear country he is attacking, the threshold is considerably higher.
In fairness to Musk, though, the US government has made a similar call by not giving long-range ATACM surface-to-surface missiles to Ukraine, which has said clearly it wants to use against targets in Crimea. As Ukraine pushes south with its counteroffensive, the peninsula’s fate increasingly looks like a potential point of tension between Kyiv and its allies, and not just Musk.
“COCKTAIL OF IGNORANCE AND BIG EGO”
From Ukraine’s point of view, retrieving Crimea is essential, because since annexing it in 2014, Putin as turned it into a vast military base pointed at Ukraine’s underbelly. So long as that remains, and there’s a fleet docked in Sevastopol, Russia will have the power to block critical ports and launch further invasions at will, making Ukraine all but uninvestible.
For others more fearful of Russia’s nuclear potential, any attempt to retake Crimea represents a road to what Musk called Ukraine’s "strategic defeat".
Podolyak pulled no punches in his post on X, describing Musk’s decision as the result of “a cocktail of ignorance and big ego’’ that cost the lives of civilians later killed by Russia’s ship-launched missiles.
Frustration has doubtless been building. Musk has made a number of naïve or misinformed interventions, including an ill-timed peace plan last October that might have been written in the Kremlin.
Nothing tends to be nuanced when it comes to Musk, who revels in controversy and seems to get wackier with time. But when it comes to Starlink, the nuance is needed.
Musk clearly is conflicted over his contribution to Ukraine’s war effort, one he was asked by Kyiv to make, and last September he wasn’t the only one worrying about where escalation might lead.
Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, the man who asked Musk to provide Starlink systems in the first place, and who tried (and failed) to persuade him to provide communications for the September 2022 sea drone attack, wasn't too happy when shown the private text exchange Musk had handed out for publication.
Even so, asked about it by the FT he again expressed gratitude to the US billionaire. There’s too much at stake for Ukraine to risk Starlink’s loss.
Like it or not, Musk is in this war. If only he’d work a little harder at understanding it.