Ukraine - SpaceX Starlink

SpaceX provided satellite Internet services to Ukraine since the beginning of Russia's special military operation. Starlink is a satellite network designed to provide broadband Internet access anywhere in the world. Since 2018, the project has been implemented by SpaceX, an American aerospace company owned by Elon Musk. Starlink provides high-speed internet to over 60 countries, especially in rural areas. Starlink offers speeds of 50 to 200 Mbps, but users may experience slower speeds due to network issues. Starlink costs $120 per month, with a one-time hardware cost of $599. Starlink Ukraine LLC (known as “Starlink” in these Terms) offers two-way satellite-based internet service (“Services”) and a Starlink antenna, Wi-Fi router and mount (“Starlink Kit” or “Kit”).

SpaceX’s Starlink service, which boasts a fast-growing network of more than 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, has been used by Ukrainian troops for various efforts, including battlefield communications. The Pentagon said that they were working with global partners to ensure Ukraine had the satellite and communication capabilities they need. The Pentagon has approved a contract with SpaceX to purchase Starlink terminals for Ukraine. These high-speed satellite terminals have been the backbone of the Ukrainian military's digital communications since Russia's invasion in February 2022. The Pentagon did not reveal details of the contracts, citing operational security concerns. The company had more than 4,500 satellites in orbit, which is more than 50% of all active satellites. Musk plans to have as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit in the coming years.

The Swedish company Satcube, which develops terminals for connecting to the Internet via satellites, is supplying equipment to Ukraine that can be used to provide Internet connections in areas where mobile and terrestrial networks are disabled. This is reported 8 August 2023 by the newspaper Dagens nyheter. As the head of Satcube Jacob Kallmer explained, the first deliveries to Ukraine took place in early summer. The company used the satellite network of the American Intelsat, which ordered about 100 terminals for about 70 million crowns ($6.53 million). These funds were allocated by Germany. According to the publication, Satcube has no information on how exactly its equipment will be used: it is possible that we are talking about both civilian and military applications. Satcube terminals can provide speeds up to 70 megabits per second.

SpaceX, through private donations and under a separate contract with a United States foreign aid agency, provided Ukrainians and the country’s military with Starlink since the beginning of the war in 2022. Ukraine received more than 40,000 terminals developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX, which connect to the Starlink network, with the intention of providing internet access and communications to civilians. Intelsat satellites are in orbit at an altitude of about 35 thousand km, Starlink is lower, which provides higher speeds and lower delay.

Musk faced backlash from Ukrainian leaders after putting forward a plan to end the war that critics saw as overly favorable to Russia. Weeks later, the business mogul came under fire again when he threatened to cut emergency funding for the Starlink service [in Ukraine]. The reaction again forced him to quickly change course.

The potential disruption of the work of Starlink would lead to serious problems for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, according to Dmitry Kornev, military analyst, founder of the “Military” Russia portal on 09 February 2023. "According to Western analysts, modern military operations heavily rely on communications. That is, if a person, sitting somewhere in a tank, or in a trench, has information about what is happening around him [on the battlefield] (…) he has already completed 50% of his combat mission," the analyst explained. "He no longer needs to look whether there is a tank behind this hill or whether someone threatens him, and who he can strike at. So, the whole Western concept is based on the presumption that everyone has satellite terminals, information terminals in every combat vehicle, every tank, and every trench. And Starlink provides this opportunity," Kornev continued.

In addition, Starlink modules give the Ukrainian military an opportunity to turn most primitive unmanned vehicles into "smart drones," per the expert. Thus, the control of sea drones and air drones which could attack Russian objects – including civilian ones – was ensured. However, a year ago Elon Musk opposed the Kiev regime's decision to use Starlink for attacks on the Russian territory demanding that the equipment be used only for "defensive" purposes, Kornev added.

If Russia obtains an opportunity to specifically jam Starlink it would mean nothing short of an "information catastrophe" for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, per the expert. The Ukrainian Army units wouldn't be able to communicate with each other, while drone attack capability would be substantially undermined too, he noted. As a result, the Kiev regime would have to fundamentally change tactics and equipment and would lose precious time and agility, according to Kornev.

Ukrainian military personnel were heavily dependent on Starlink, and Russia should use every opportunity to throw sand in the gears of their communication system, the expert noted, stressing that it would significantly increase Russia's capabilities and reduce the capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Musk said that he prevented a Ukrainian attack on a Russian Navy base in September 2022 by declining Kyiv’s request to activate internet access in the Black Sea near Moscow-annexed Crimea. “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 07 September 2023 on X, formerly named Twitter. The city of Sevastopol is the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” Musk said.

According to a published excerpt of the biography of the tech tycoon by Walter Isaacson, 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 100 kilometers 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”, according to Isaacson. In Isaacson’s book, Musk complained about Starlink’s involvement in the conflict. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes,” Musk reportedly said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak slammed Elon Musk for indirectly allowing Russian forces to attack Ukrainian cities after it was revealed his Starlink satellite communications interfered with a drone operation.

Details of the incident are laid out in a biography of Musk by Walter Isaacson. The book describes how the network turned off communications near the coast of the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula as Ukrainian drones were approaching Russian warships, resulting in “lost connectivity”. Musk allegedly ordered Starlink engineers to turn off the communications as he feared Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond with nuclear weapons to a Ukrainian attack on Crimea, according to Isaacson’s book.

“I think if the Ukrainian attacks had succeeded in sinking the Russian fleet, it would have been like a mini Pearl Harbor and led to a major escalation,” Musk is quoted as saying. “We did not want to be a part of that.”

Mikhail Podoliak, a senior aide to President Vladimir Zelensky, chose X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter that Musk owns, to launch a scathing attack on the tech billionaire. In his post, he said by “not allowing” Ukrainian drones to strike Russian warships, Musk “allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities” – an action he said resulted in the death of civilians and children. Podolyak had criticised Musk before. In February 2023, he wrote: “A year of Ukrainian resistance & companies have to decide: Either they are on the side of Ukraine & the right to freedom, and don’t seek ways to do harm. Or they are on Russia’s side & its ‘right’ to kill & seize territories.”

Musk had been accused in the past of posting Russian narratives, which include suggesting parts of occupied Ukraine be handed over to Russia. The European Commission published a report that showed X, formerly known as Twitter, had played a significant role in spreading Russian propaganda.

Join the mailing list