Elon Musk recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to a one-handed fistfight for the future of Ukraine. But the entrepreneur’s real defense of the besieged country is his effort to keep Ukrainians online with shipments of Starlink satellite Internet service.
Starlink is a unit of Musk’s space company, SpaceX. The service uses terminals that resemble TV dishes equipped with antennas and are usually mounted on roofs to access the Internet via satellite in rural or disconnected areas.
When war broke out in Ukraine, the country faced threats of Russian cyberattacks and shelling that had the potential to take down the Internet, making it necessary to develop a backup plan. So the country’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a direct plea to Musk urging him to send help. Musk replied just hours later: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”
“The quality of the link is excellent,” Fedorov said through a translator, using a Starlink connection from an undisclosed location. “We are using thousands, in the area of thousands, of terminals with new shipments arriving every other day.”
The use of Starlink as a stopgap measure for citizens and the government to stay connected during an invasion is a major test of the relatively new technology, experts say, and could have widespread implications for the future of war. Internet has become an essential tool for communication, staying informed and even powering weapons.
It’s also a test for Musk. The world’s richest man, valued at $232 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaire‘s Index, makes a habit of turning to Twitter for brash promises and proclamations in the midst of world crises. Already this week, the Tesla CEO has challenged Putin to a fight and followed up by pledging he would use just one hand if Putin was scared. And he told Putin he could bring a bear.
He has fallen short on some past pledges, including making ventilators for coronavirus patients and efforts to help rescue Thai children stuck in a cave.
But this time, Fedorov and some experts say he’s come through. Tesla employees in Europe reportedly assembled systems to help power Starlink in Ukraine, and Fedorov said other European countries have sent Starlink equipment from their own supplies.
Musk responded to a request for comment on his efforts with Starlink and past efforts, telling The Post to give his regards “to your puppet master Besos😘😘.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Musk did not respond to a follow-up request specifically on his work with Starlink in Ukraine.
Internet disruptions can be caused by power outages or by fiber optic cables being cut as a result of shelling, experts said. The Starlink technology is being used by civilians in areas under attack that have lost Internet service, and by government officials. Starlink terminals have also been provided to help the country’s tech companies stay online when the war has forced them to relocate. The Times of London reports that a Ukrainian unit is using Starlink to connect its drones attacking Russian forces.
Starlink has grown quickly in recent years, surpassing some satellite Internet competitors by launching more than 1,000 satellites into space. People can buy the service online for $99 a month, plus $499 for the equipment, but Starlink cautions it can take six or more months to ship in some cases.
A person familiar with Starlink’s effort in Ukraine, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there are more than 5,000 terminals in the country.
Still, experts said that even a big Starlink network probably wouldn’t be enough power to keep an entire country online and operating at full-speed. But the terminals can serve as a reliable backup as Internet services falter. Fedorov said he and his staff are having discussions with other European leaders and companies about additional satellite and cellular technologies that could help keep Ukrainians online in the event of greater Internet outages.
Internet flows deteriorated on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and have not fully recovered, according to data-monitoring services. But since that initial dip, connectivity has remained fairly stable, with mainly temporary, isolated outages even during heavy Russian shelling.
“Every day there are outages, but generally service comes back,” said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis for Kentik, which monitors global data flows.
Even before Fedorov tweeted at Musk for help, SpaceX was working on a way to get Starlink to Ukraine. President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a talk at California Institute of Technology this month that the company had been working for several weeks to get regulatory approval to allow the satellites to communicate in Ukraine.
“But then they tweeted,” she said, according to SpaceNews. “There’s our permission.”
Fedorov’s agency is working to get Starlink terminals to regions where Internet access has been cut off, he said. The systems have in some instances been used to connect people when cellular networks in the country have been overloaded.
Fedorov said that he’s briefly texted with Musk and that the tech billionaire has also had a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
There are some concerns that accompany the use of the terminals. Like all satellite communications during war, Starlink signals could be used to detect the location of the antennas, experts say.
While it’s unclear if Russia can use the signals to target attacks, Musk instructed caution on Twitter.
“Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high,” he tweeted. He added that users should turn on the terminal only when needed and keep it far away from people.
Experts have warned that the devices could give away Ukrainians’ locations to Russian attackers, but that hasn’t been an issue so far, Fedorov said. The devices have usually been used in “densely populated areas where there would be a lot of civilians anyway.”
He said Russian cyberattacks have not ramped up on the systems — yet.
“They currently appear to be very busy attacking the websites of our small towns and villages,” Fedorov said. “I think they’re just not at that point yet.”
Because Starlink is still relatively new, there’s a lot to figure out about how and if it’s feasible to use in conflict zones, defense and space industry experts say.
“The answer is it’s potentially useful, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for space sustainability nonprofit Secure World Foundation, pointing to the risk of cyberattacks and what exactly the needs are.
Russians, as well as many others, have technology capable of finding, jamming and sometimes intercepting many kinds of transmissions. Starlink’s technology could be a target for these efforts, said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
“But I think it’s really important that people in Ukraine and areas without connectivity get connected, so it’s a question of understanding and balancing risk,” he said.
In Kyiv, one Ukrainian engineer saw the Twitter exchanges between Fedorov and Musk and hurried to piece back together a Starlink terminal he had bought months earlier. Oleg Kutkov said he bought a terminal just to disassemble it and put it back together — as an engineer, he was curious to see how it worked.
But now that Starlink services are enabled in the country, it could actually prove useful, he said. His regular Internet service is still working, but he put the Starlink antenna out his window and turned it on to test, he said. The speed was really fast.
“Internet connection is really important here in Ukraine,” Kutkov said. “We are getting a lot of info from social media channels, from the government and from each other.” Kutkov got so many questions from fellow Ukrainians about Starlink that he set up a Facebook group to address them. It now has 370 members.
Christian Davenport, Craig Timberg and Joseph Menn contributed to this report.