Home World Whatever the hype around Elon Musk, Starlink is absolutely essential in Ukraine

Whatever the hype around Elon Musk, Starlink is absolutely essential in Ukraine

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Whatever the hype around Elon Musk, Starlink is absolutely essential in Ukraine

DNIPR, Ukraine — New details about how Elon Musk restricted Starlink satellite internet service to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian ships in Crimea last year have provided a stark reminder of how important the service is to Kiev’s forces — and how success on the battlefield depends in part on a billionaire’s whim. mercurial.

Musk’s company SpaceX sent Starlink stations to Ukraine after the Russian invasion in February 2022, when Moscow quickly cut off all other services. Since then, high-speed satellite terminals have formed the Ukrainian military’s digital communications backbone. Nestled in trenches, camouflaged over armored vehicles and buzzing in dusty command posts, the small Wi-Fi stations are so essential that many soldiers say not having them would put their lives at risk.

Modern war zones are full of digital communications, requiring fast and secure internet. In Ukraine, Starlink data streaming helps deliver drone feeds from across the battlefield, allowing commanders to see enemy forces in real time and coordinate artillery strikes much faster than transmitting the same information via radios.

There are about 42,000 Starlink stations in Ukraine, which provide military, government and civilian communications as Russia relentlessly attacks civilian infrastructure, officials said. The stations are also playing an increasingly important role in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, giving soldiers portable communications options in rural areas along the southern front that are either very remote or where cell towers have been damaged and destroyed.

The stations also offer connectivity to smartphones and tablets, which does everything from helping soldiers stay informed in group chats to running apps that help calculate targeting information for howitzer batteries. Soldiers often use the same Starlink-connected devices to communicate with loved ones at home or abroad and to upload battlefield videos to social media.

In a recent operation in an area northeast of Luhansk near Russian lines, a Starlink terminal pumped WiFi data to a three-man drone attack team, allowing the pilot to monitor a group chat that provided real-time updates on enemy positions and movements. Viktor Stelmach, head of the 68th Jaeger Brigade’s offensive drone unit, used that information to deploy several drones and drop grenades on enemy positions. The strikes, which were monitored by Washington Post reporters, resulted in the injury of a number of Russian soldiers.

Details about Musk’s role in limiting Starlink service are included in a new biography of the billionaire businessman written by Walter Isaacson. An excerpt from the book was published in an opinion article in the Washington Post. The book’s details about Musk’s role in cutting Starlink were first reported by CNN.

Musk cut off the internet to the Ukrainian army while it attacked the Russian fleet

The revelations in Isaacson’s book have reignited concerns about the influence that SpaceX and Musk, as its owner, have over the war in Ukraine.

In October 2022, armed naval drones were preparing to attack the Russian fleet, according to the biography. Instead, the drones lost contact and drifted ashore without causing any damage, because Musk secretly ordered engineers to suspend Starlink service near occupied Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

Ukrainian and American officials rushed to restore service, according to the book, appealing directly to Musk. Musk eventually agreed. “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” Musk said Friday on X, the company he owns and formerly known as Twitter. He was referring to the coastal city of Crimea, which had long been the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russia retained the headquarters under a lease agreement with Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a conversation with Isaacson, Musk expressed his unwillingness to have his service used in such an attack. “The clear intent is to sink most of the anchored Russian fleet,” Musk told Isaacson. “If you grant their request, SpaceX will clearly be complicit in a significant act of war and escalation of conflict.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. Ukrainian officials point out that the Russian invasions of Crimea in 2014 and of all of Ukraine in 2022 amounted to unlawful acts of aggression and alleged war crimes under international law.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Thursday that Musk’s decision to cut off Starlink service near Crimea and other occupied territories in Ukraine led to the deaths of civilians.

“As a result, civilians and children are being killed,” Podolyak wrote on X.

“This is the price of a combination of ignorance and great arrogance,” Podolyak continued. “However, the question still remains: Why do some people so want to defend war criminals and want to commit murders? Do they now realize that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?”

Ukrainian Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, whose ministry deals directly with Starlink, did not respond to a request for comment.

Musk’s ability to control Ukrainian military operations has alarmed some in the Pentagon, which has sent billions of dollars in weapons to help Ukraine defend against the Russian invasion. The Department of Defense has struggled to rein it in, though it agreed to foot the bills for Starlink’s expensive service after Musk threatened that he would stop offering the service for free.

How Russia learned from mistakes to slow Ukraine’s counterattack

Ukrainian forces have integrated Starlink into every corner of the conflict, relying on the service for almost any mission that requires digital connectivity.

An aerial reconnaissance soldier with the call sign Labrador, who uses the gaming term “IMBA,” or imbalance, said Starlink offers a significant advantage over Russian capabilities. Feeding multiple drones on one screen provides leaders and scouts with situational awareness, Labrador said. He added that surveillance drones monitoring artillery fire could transmit quick and accurate impact locations, allowing howitzer crews to quickly adjust their aim and hit the target.

The Labrador, like the other soldiers, spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his call sign in line with Ukrainian military rules.

He said the loss of Starlink would force Ukraine to resort to traditional communications such as radio or other inferior alternatives. He added that this can be achieved, but it will require difficult trade-offs. For example, he said, when digital communications are used between trenches, soldiers may have to leave a relatively safe location to relay information verbally.

“These are additional risks,” he added. “It can be said that the lack of an alternative to Starlink will increase the level of deaths and injuries.”

Internet access through Starlink also helped soldiers when they needed to access training manuals and get more information about advanced weapons and equipment they received from the West, said Rusin, deputy commander of the 49th Infantry Battalion in the Carpathian Sich.

“If at some point they stop working, it will not be the end of the world, but it will greatly worsen our position on the front and our effectiveness,” Roussin said.

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Starlink provides a critical lifeline to civilians as well.

A year ago, after a surprise Ukrainian advance liberated large swaths of territory in the country’s northeast, civilians emerged from the information bubble controlled by Russia. For months, with most mobile phone and internet services cut off, they were unable to communicate with loved ones elsewhere in Ukraine. Even for several days after cities and towns returned under Ukrainian control, some were unable to contact their families to confirm their survival.

In Izyom, for example, as Ukrainian soldiers set up a base in the city and connected their Starlink network — which had sustained minor damage from an earlier bombing — locals gathered to connect to the network and talk to their relatives, sometimes for the first time since the early days of 2018. The Invasion Russian in February 2022.

Journalists covering the war also routinely use Starlink as the only way to send news reports, photos and video from areas without effective Internet service.

Ukrainian use of Starlink has sparked a strong response from Moscow, including a trial of secret electronic warfare capabilities aimed at neutralizing the service, according to leaked U.S. intelligence assessments obtained by The Washington Post.

The secret documents said that the Russian army tested for months ways to disrupt communications communications over Ukraine, but the documents did not determine whether the tests were successful or had their intended effect.

Siobhan O’Grady and David L. Stern from Kyiv.

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