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The Elon Musk debacle: Starklink, Ukraine and Putin

Elon Musk’s Starlink is a satellite constellation, a collection of individual satellites stationed in low Earth orbit that communicate with each other, normally purchased for individual use. However, national attention has recently focused on Starlink due to its key role in providing internet access in Ukraine. The service relies on disks on the ground that operate independently of government-run internet services. Because of the disks’ versatility, they have been instrumental in a warzone like Ukraine, where internet access is restricted and tenuous. Starlink provides internet access to civilians, government officials, military technology and weapons. The service is mainly marketed toward rural communities, those without internet access and small businesses, and it currently has 500,000 subscribers. 

Although Musk has been praised by the U.S. and its allies for donating Starlink services to Ukraine, it has been a highly controversial decision. Astronomers have worried about the mass collection of satellites blocking their view of space, potentially complicating the  spotting of asteroids, solar flares and other potential threats to Earth. Similarly, there are concerns about causing light pollution and interfering  with other low Earth orbit satellites, including  those that control the early warning systems responsible for nuclear warheads, Earth observation satellites that monitor climate change and GPS satellites. 

The importance of these non-Starlink satellites cannot be understated. If a constellation of Starlink satellites fails, it will cause a cascade of debris in space. The most pressing danger is the satellite or the debris hitting a military nuclear command and control satellite. If this type of satellite is damaged,, the owner of those satellites – nation-states – could potentially assume that it was an intentional attack, and subsequently launch a retaliatory strike. Nuclear war would certainly not benefit anyone, even if it is unintentional. 

Beyond the theoretical issues the technology could pose, there are questions about how well Starlink works. 

Starlink has been rejected almost entirely by the scientific community. Currently, the system can support 800,000 users, but its lofty goal is 6,000,000. This number is far below the number of people who lack broadband services. 

More contextual to the crisis in Ukraine, many believe that internet- providing services  utilized for any military purpose should not be in the hands of the private sector. Unlike government agencies, Starlink and SpaceX are profit motivated. Cutting corners with security, efficacy and quality to reduce costs is all expected, and in the company’s best interest. In a highly contested war zone, ignoring safety concerns and leaving satellites vulnerable to hacking is a possible death sentence. 

However, oversight and development of new technology may overcome these issues — although it has already become irrelevant to Ukraine’s military and civilians. As of this week, it was revealed that Musk had put in a request for the Pentagon to fund Starlink’s use in Ukraine– despite the fact that he chose to  provide the service  to the nation on his own accord, without any provocation from the United States Government. Once leaked, Musk took to Twitter, saying: “The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free” and calling the comments in the thread “a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.”

A series of statements regarding Starlink access in Ukraine followed his October 3rd tweets, which push for a pro-Russia peace plan in the region:

“Ukraine-Russia Peace: 

– Redo elections of annexed regions under UN supervision. Russia leaves if that is will of the people.

– Crimea formally part of Russia, as it has been since 1783 (until Khrushchev’s mistake).

– Water supply to Crimea assured.

– Ukraine remains neutral.” 

Although Musk presents himself as a neutral actor in this tweet, this peace plan is strongly similar to Russian proposals. For example, formally making Crimea a part of Russia legitimizes Russia’s 2014 annexation of the region and its reasoning for the most recent invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, he references a very particular issue of water supply to Crimea. If successful, Russian nationals have been concerned about how Crimea will have access to water when it lacks any natural reserves. However, this is not a concern of the general public or Ukrainians who believe they have the right to Crimean territories and the land around them with water access. Because Musk is reiterating such hyper-specific talking points, he could be taking a cue from Putin’s playbook. 

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted back, seemingly calling out Musk for his explicit pro-Russia stance posing the poll “Which @elonmusk do you like more? One who supports Ukraine. One who supports Russia.” At the same time, the Kremlin praised Musk for his support in ending the conflict.

The seemingly funny Twitter exchange might reveal something greater about Musk’s position in the conflict, perhaps as an intermediary between Russia and the Western world that Putin uses to further his political agenda. Putin has used famous cultural figures to spread his message to otherwise unresponsive audiences. Publicly, Putin has also been pushing a hardline stance regarding Ukraine, going as far as to threaten nuclear weapons use. Despite his threats, the Russian effort in the region has faltered. Escalation is most likely unwise because of the risk that allies, or allies of partners like the United States, could create a more significant conflict with undesirable odds for Russian victory. As a result, many think that Putin is using the media to push a peaceful end to the conflict while still being able to appear strong. Trying to build western support may be another way Putin decides to end and win in Ukraine decisively. Although preferable to the nuclear option, it is still an example of a worrying trend of Russian interference in American politics and culture. For example, the alleged influence of Russia in the 2016 election, the spread of bots on social media sites spreading propaganda, donations to political parties or candidates and now controlling public opinion – all of which threaten the foundations of American democracy. 

Musk’s analysis of the war in Ukraine comes alongside his desired purchase of Twitter. One of his main reasons for doing so was, supposedly, to crack down on Russian bots. His hypocrisy in criticizing the Russian presence on the platform while also tweeting incredibly biased “peace plans” reveals his moral questionability. He only cares about Russian fake accounts insofar as them contributing to the total user number of Twitter users, which drives its price up. He has made no promises to restrict the accounts post his acquisition or even say their presence is inherently bad, proving he thinks with only his pockets. As explained above, his refusal to investigate other logistical problems with Starlink also demonstrates that costly – although necessary – upgrades or technological changes are unwelcome. 

Additionally, his unwavering commitment to “free speech” on the act is a front for him facilitating the far-right wing of American politics and other nations. A Musk-owned and operated Twitter could have devastating consequences; for example, unbanning President Trump pre the 2024 election and not restricting his supporters’ speech regardless of how problematic they are. 

Regardless of if he knows it, Musk is in Putin’s pocket. His threat to remove Starlink from Ukraine, retweets of propaganda and purchase of Twitter threaten America, but as long as they benefit him financially, Musk will simply ignore them.

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About the Contributor
Bea Culligan
Bea Culligan, Social Media Manager and News Editor
Bea (she/her) is a sophomore intended political science major from Los Angeles, California. She is interested in all things news, but most of all, what is happening at Carleton! Bea was previously a Staff Writer.

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