The war between Russia and Ukraine might look a lot different today if Elon Musk hadn’t interfered last year. Did the SpaceX leader overstep his bounds? Here’s what happened.
Cutting Off Russian Access
As Ukraine fought back against Russian invaders in 2022, one area of particular world interest was the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia had seized control of the strategic Black Sea land mass from Ukraine back in 2014, and most experts agreed it could be the key to the war.
If Ukraine could recapture Crimea, the thinking went, they could cut off Russian access to significant port resources and quickly end the fighting.
So, Ukraine military officials came up with a plan to accelerate their actions in Crimea.
A Threat to Ukrainian Troops
With the Russian naval fleet stationed in the waters near Crimea, they were an inviting target for submarines. But they also represented a significant threat to the lives of Ukrainian soldiers who might be on those subs.
The plan, then, was to use a fleet of submarine drones armed with explosives to launch a surprise attack that could disable the Russian ships in the area.
And that’s where Elon Musk and his technology comes in, says a new Musk biography from the pen of author Walter Isaacson.
Just before the war began, in February 2022, Russia jammed Ukraine’s communication systems. That left them unable to carry out routine operations and desperate for help.
Musk Lends a Million Dollar Hand
Musk agreed to supply Ukraine with millions of dollars worth of SpaceX satellite equipment to get them up and running again. It worked.
In fact, the Starlink system worked so well for Ukraine that they were able to start thinking about more than just defending their borders. They began to think with a more offensive mindset.
Armed with a strong communication system and a growing expertise in the use of drone technology, Ukraine launched its underwater attack on Russian ships.
But Musk found out what was happening and immediately felt uneasy about the situation. He wanted his satellite technology to be used for connecting people, not for waging war.
And, as Musk later told Isaacson, he feared the attack on Russian ships would be akin to Pearl Harbor and spark a global conflict.
With visions of Russia launching nuclear missiles running through his head, Musk ordered his SpaceX engineers to switch off the network near Crimea.
With no way to communicate with command center or with each other, the armed submarine drones went off course and washed up on shore. No harm, no foul.
Ukraine officials begged Musk to turn the network back on, but he thought they were overstepping their bounds by going on the offensive.
SpaceX Money Stops and Starts
And Musk didn’t want his technology to be used for war, especially not for helping to escalate the fighting to a global scale.
Musk’s involvement with Ukraine has always been controversial, even among members of his own companies.
From the beginning, SpaceX provided equipment and support to Ukraine at no charge. But in the aftermath of the sub incident, Musk told U.S. and Ukrainian officials he couldn’t foot the bill forever.
So, the Pentagon arranged to pay SpaceX more than $100 million for continued support. But then Musk took to Twitter and reversed course.
Taking a lot of public flak for trying to pull out on Ukraine, Musk said he’d continue to pay.
Russian Eyes on the Sky
But Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, told Isaacson she wasn’t happy with that decision. “The Pentagon had a $145 million check ready to hand to me, literally.”
According to Isaacson, the U.S. and European countries eventually worked out a deal to pay for more SpaceX equipment.
And so Musk’s importance to the war continues even today, a fact not lost on Russia.
Just last week, U.S. officials accused Russian hackers of trying to disrupt battlefield communications by intercepting data from Starlink satellites.
Whether anyone likes it or not, it seems Musk will be a part of the war for the long haul.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / cristiano barni