HALIFAX — Ukrainian officials love SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which has allowed the government and military to maintain internet access even as Russia has laid waste to critical infrastructure and disrupted other means of communication.
But the mercurial behavior of SpaceX founder Elon Musk has raised questions about whether Ukraine can depend on having Starlink access for the long haul, as well as whether disinformation about the war in Ukraine could become a “major trend” on Twitter, said Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
“We have the Twitter guarantee of Elon Musk that he’s going to finance [Starlink], and he talked to our minister of digital transformation, so we consider it as a deal,” Stefanishyna told reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.
Musk finalized his acquisition of Twitter last month,
Musk sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine in February, an act that was lauded by Pentagon and Ukrainian officials as pivotal for keeping Ukraine online after Russia’s invasion. Getting the technology was a “turning point” for Ukraine during the first three weeks of the war, with government officials relying on Starlink to keep cell phones connected and restoring internet service to villages where communications hardware had been “physically cut out” and destroyed, Stefanishyna said.
“Starlink has been the signal of life for Ukraine,” she said. “Our government has been able to be operational because I had Starlink over my head.”
However, tracking the status of Starlink in Ukraine — and Musk’s intentions for sustaining access to it—became murky this fall after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon claiming it could no longer afford to internally fund Ukraine’s Starlink terminals.
Musk tweeted on Oct. 15 that SpaceX had withdrawn its request for funds, even though paying for Ukraine’s terminals would cost the company more than $100 million by the end of the year. However, multiple outlets reported Starlink outages throughout the month of October, including a report from CNN that 1,300 terminals had lost Starlink access even after Musk’s pledge to continue Starlink funding.
At the same time, Musk — who was in the process of finalizing his acquisition of Twitter — drew the ire of Ukrainian officials after he tweeted a peace plan that would see Ukraine cede Crimea to Russia. Musk’s proposal prompted Andrij Melnyk, then Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, to tweet, “Fuck off is my very diplomatic reply to you” in response.
For the moment, Ukrainian officials have “direct contact” with SpaceX management, Stefanishyna said. At the same time, Ukraine is currently seeking alternatives to Starlink, with other communications networks already being procured. Those options are “not as sophisticated” as Starlink but would ensure that the Ukrainian government can remain connected — even if Musk allows Starlink coverage to lapse in the future, she said.
“It’s really hard to speak [definitively] when we’re talking about the CEO of a private company,” Stefanishyna said. “It’s G2B [government-to-business] format, but the ‘B’ is a bit uncertain.”