WASHINGTON: US tech billionaire Elon Musk says he prevented Ukraine from wiping out Russia's Black Sea navy fleet last year by denying Starlink internet access - a revelation that prompted a furious response from Kyiv on Friday (Sep 8).
The satellite-based communications system Starlink, operated by Musk-owned company SpaceX, has been deployed in Ukraine since shortly after the country was invaded by Russia in February 2022.
The network, which helps increasingly high-tech soldiers to operate in areas where other means of communication are down, is a key battlefield tool for Kyiv.
But the admission by Musk - who has previously angered Ukraine with proposals including validating Russia's claim to sovereignty over the occupied Crimea region - raises questions about whether Starlink can be fully counted on by Kyiv.
The incident in question revolves around a dramatic plan by Ukraine to cripple Russia's Black Sea naval fleet based in Sevastopol, a strategic harbor in Crimea, which Moscow occupied and claimed to annex in 2014.
"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," Musk posted Thursday on his social media platform X, formerly named Twitter.
"If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation," said Musk, the world's richest person.
The billionaire's post sparked sharp condemnation from Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
"By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed," Podolyak wrote on X.
"This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego," he added.
The Pentagon did not directly respond when asked if Musk's actions were acceptable for a US government contractor and what actions it was taking as a result.
MEDVEDEV PRAISES MUSK
Instead, a spokesman said the Defense Department is "aware of the coverage and interest in this topic" and that while it does contract with Starlink, "for reasons of operational security we have not released additional information regarding their specific capabilities or other operational details".
Musk's account of preventing the attack on Russia's fleet came in response to a post based on information from an upcoming biography by Walter Isaacson, which says the tech tycoon had deactivated Starlink in the Crimea area to do so.
In an excerpt published by The Washington Post on Thursday, Isaacson wrote that in September 2022, "the Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and it was using Starlink to guide them to the target".
Musk had "spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States... (who) had explicitly told him that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response", Isaacson wrote.
Musk "secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100km of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly".
Musk pushed back against Isaacson's account, saying in a post on X: "The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything."
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's ex-president and current senior security advisor to President Vladimir Putin, praised Musk for the book's account of his actions.
He "was concerned about a retaliatory nuclear strike", Medvedev posted on X, adding: "If what Isaacson has written in his book is true, then it looks like Musk is the last adequate mind in North America."
Musk also called Thursday for a truce in the conflict, in which Ukrainian forces regained significant ground from Russia last year but have only made slow progress in a counteroffensive launched in June.
"Both sides should agree to a truce. Every day that passes, more Ukrainian and Russian youth die to gain and lose small pieces of land, with borders barely changing. This is not worth their lives," Musk posted.
Ukraine's leadership has repeatedly said it is committed to driving out Russian troops and retaking all its occupied territory. The US government says it will continue to support Kyiv with billions of dollars of weaponry and other support to drive back Putin's invasion.