Alp Sevimlisoy Yatırım

How Elon Musk became a power player in the Ukraine war

Elon Musk has become a surprising power player in the Ukraine war, overseeing a vast communications network that is crucial to Kyiv’s fight against Russia.

A biography of the billionaire published this week shows the extent of Musk’s power, revealing how he exercised his newfound geopolitical power to single-handedly thwart a major Ukrainian raid last year by refusing to extend Starlink capabilities. There are also other reported instances of Musk reducing Ukraine’s capabilities on the battlefield.

Alp Sevimlisoy, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. “should definitely be looking at developing” its own capabilities to be less reliant on Musk, though he acknowledged Starlink — a network of thousands of low-orbit satellites that provide internet to remote regions — is an “extremely unique” technology that cannot be easily replicated on a fast timetable.

He called for the U.S. to work more closely with Musk in the meantime to prevent future events like the botched raid.

The Biden administration has remained largely silent on Musk’s controversial role in Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment when asked about Musk turning off Starlink during a CNN interview this week.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall refrained from criticizing Musk, but said the Pentagon should draft contracts that would allow more oversight, the Associated Press reported.

“If we’re going to rely upon commercial architectures or commercial systems for operational use, then we have to have some assurances that they’re going to be available,” Kendall said Monday at a conference in National Harbor, Md. “We have to have that. Otherwise, they are a convenience … in peacetime, but they’re not something we can rely upon in wartime.”

The latest concerns follow Musk floating a Russia-friendly peace plan last fall, and reports that he spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin before releasing the proposal.

The biography, “Elon Musk,” by famed author Walter Isaacson, details how Musk pulled the plug during a Ukrainian raid last year in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Ukrainians were targeting a fleet of Russian ships in the harbor but were unable to attack because Starlink was not extended to the area, according to the book, which was released Tuesday.

The excerpt of “Elon Musk,” published by CNN and The Washington Post, said Ukraine deployed submarine drones to attack the fleet, but the drones lost connectivity and “washed ashore harmlessly.” The book claimed Musk shut off service over fears of starting a nuclear war.

Isaacson corrected himself on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter and now owned by Musk, saying the Starlink service was never extended to Crimea. Ukrainians were denied access when they requested it, he said. Musk shared a similar account on X last week.

The Ukrainian raid is not the only instance of Musk intervening in the war. Starlink was unavailable during another unspecified time, in southern Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian soldiers to retreat, according to the New Yorker, which reported that SpaceX deliberately cut off connectivity in certain areas.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company has also limited Kyiv’s abilities to connect Starlink with the direct operation of drones, saying at a February conference that Ukraine “leveraged [Starlink] in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”

Musk’s direct involvement in Crimea operations last year has stirred anger in Kyiv. Top advisers and officials working under Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have publicly slammed Musk over the revelations in Isaacson’s book.

Maksym Skrypchenko, the president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, a think tank that advises the Ukrainian government, said Musk handed Russia a “comparative benefit” by shutting off access to Starlink.

“Musk just gave Russians another chance to use the Black Sea fleet to execute more attacks and kill more people,” Skrypchenko said. “The goal was to strike against the fleet, which is the legal military target. Also the narrative about preventing the nuclear war is wrong itself. We have already succeeded in sinking Russian ships.”

Still, he said Starlink “plays a crucial role in today’s Ukraine.”

“Starting from providing civilians with internet in places where there is no network at all and finishing with giving an ability for our military to communicate with each other in places where ordinary radio talks are either tapped or eavesdropped,” he said in an email.

The uniqueness and irreplaceability of the technology is putting both Ukraine and the U.S. in a tight spot.

Nathan Marx, a research fellow at the Center for International Policy focusing on technology and U.S. foreign policy, said Starlink provides a “capability that’s really, really hard to replace right now” across public and private sectors.

“There’s not a lot of other companies who have this massive constellation of very relatively low orbit satellites that Starlink does,” he said.

Marx argued that Musk’s power dynamic in Ukraine is a symptom of how much power private companies and defense contractors have over Washington.

“I wonder how much of this is part of the culture and structure of these companies,” he said. “I do think they have a level of power where they could definitely cause this level of disruption or more.”

Musk began supplying Starlink services to Ukraine in early 2022, shortly after Russia wiped out Ukrainian communications technology before the invasion. Over time, the technology has become the communications backbone for Ukrainian forces, helping them stay connected over radio and access internet services.

Yet Musk has begun to question his role in Ukraine and why his technology was being used for violent means, according to the new book.

“How am I in this war?” he asked, according to the biography.

In fall 2022, Musk announced he would not keep funding Starlink services because of the high cost. Though he eventually relented and said he would keep footing the bill, this sent the Pentagon into a panic, sparking several meetings on how to handle the situation, according to the New Yorker.

Colin Kahl, the former under secretary of defense for policy, told the magazine they needed assurances Musk “couldn’t wake up one morning and just decide, like, he didn’t want to do this anymore” and to find a way to “lock in services across Ukraine.”

The Pentagon announced in June that it had agreed to a contract with Musk to fund the Starlink services, though details on the arrangement have been kept under wraps.

In Russia, Musk’s efforts have been well-received. Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, praised Musk as the “last adequate mind in North America.”

Putin himself called Musk an “outstanding person” during remarks Tuesday.

Russian officials also welcomed Musk’s peace plan shared on X in October, which proposed that Moscow could keep Crimea, and elections would decide the future of four Ukrainian regions illegally occupied by Russia. Musk reportedly spoke with Putin before announcing that peace plan, but the billionaire denies the allegations.

Sevimlisoy, of the Atlantic Council, said Musk is more aligned with some Republicans who want the war to end and are softening on support for Ukraine. He said Musk wants to be “taken seriously on the geopolitical front” but is likely being kept at arm’s length in Washington.

“There is an institutional desire to keep a distance from Musk in various departments,” Sevimlisoy assessed. “What that does is, it pushes him to a perspective of having only his own knowledge to tackle the topics.”


Alp Sevimlisoy originally featured as per: Yahoo!