A new biography of Elon Musk claims that the South African billionaire "secretly ordered" his engineers to turn off Starlink services near the Crimean coast last year, thereby thwarting a Ukrainian "sneak attack" on the Russian naval fleet, according to CNN.
Musk responded to the allegation on X Thursday, stating that "SpaceX did not deactivate anything," as he had not agreed to requests to activate the orbital internet service "all the way to Sevastapol" for fear of becoming complicit in a "major act of war."
Notwithstanding Musk's explanation, critics and elements of the Ukrainian government have lashed out at the billionaire, claiming he is responsible for the deaths of Ukrainian civilians resultant of strikes launched by the Russian vessels left undamaged in the Black Sea.
What's the background?
Ukraine, still working to oust occupying Russian forces, has been aided for over a year by Elon Musk's company Starlink, which itself was launched in 2018.
Starlink is a constellation comprising thousands of satellites in low orbit, roughly 341 miles overhead, providing earthlings with corresponding ground antennas with broadband internet.
Owing to the destruction inflicted upon Ukrainian communications systems and power infrastructure by Russian invaders, the country faced an uphill battle in the way of coordinating its defense, reported CBS News.
Mykhailo Fedorov, the country's minister of digital transformation, implored Musk on Feb. 26, 2022, to "provide Ukraine with Starlink stations."
Two days later, Fedorov was thanking Musk for the first of numerous shipments of Starlink terminals.
With stable internet restored, Wired reported Ukrainians were once again able to call their relatives and that the military was in a position to better organize various counteroffensives.
Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, stressed the system's strategic importance, telling Wired, "In Ukraine you could see immediately that Starlink and other constellations mean you have the opportunity to have a resilient system protected from traditional ground attacks or control."
Dmytro Zinchuk, the head of network operations for the internet provider Freenet, said, "When there is no connection at all, Starlink is just a salvation for people who have been without connection for many weeks," reported NBC News.
Recognizing their utility and the corresponding need, the U.S. got in on the action, with USAID subsidizing some of the thousands of terminals SpaceX moved into Ukraine via Poland.
Musk's support was not, however, unconditional.
The biographer's contention
Walter Isaacson, a former CEO of both CNN and the Aspen Institute, has penned multiple biographies, including tomes about Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs. His latest is about Elon Musk.
CNN reported that in his new book, Isaacson claimed that Musk covertly ordered his engineers to turn off his company's Starlink near the Crimean coast to thwart a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet.
Fedorov allegedly pleaded with Musk via text during the operation, asking him to restore connectivity for the submarine drones and telling Musk about their capabilities, according to Isaacson.
In one instance last October, the BBC reported Ukraine had carried out a "massive" drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet using nine submarine drones.
Footage taken from one of the submarine drones shows what appears to be a Russian helicopter attempting to shoot it out of the water.
Isaacson wrote that Musk responded to Fedorov, noting he was impressed by the submarine but would not restore internet connection because it was too provocative, adding that Ukraine was "going too far and inviting strategic defeat," reported the Daily Mail.
As a result, the submarine drones strapped with explosives en route to the fleet allegedly "lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly."
The rationale behind the alleged decision was that Russia would respond to the bombing with nuclear weapons.
Musk has expressed this fear before, stating on Oct. 17, 2022, "If Russia is faced with the choice of losing Crime or using battlefield nukes, they will choose the latter. We've already sanctioned/cutoff Russia in every possible way, so what more do they have left to lose? If we nuke Russia back, they will nuke us and then we have WW3."
Musk added, "Crimea is absolutely seen as a core part of Russia by Russia. Crimea is also of critical national security importance to Russia, as it is their southern navy base. From their standpoint losing Crimea is like USA losing Hawaii & Pearl Harbor."
CNN stressed that the alleged unilateral move of immense geostrategic consequence by the world's richest man made him "a power broker U.S. officials couldn't ignore."
In the biography, Musk reportedly told Isaacson, "How am I in this war? ... 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."
Inaction viewed as action against Ukraine
While some lauded what they perceived to be a passive effort aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust, various critics lashed out at Musk Thursday, with some noting that aiding the Ukrainians in repelling invaders would not constitute an escalation but rather self-defense. Others posting pictures of the remains of civilians killed by Crimean naval strikes.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, stated, "Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities."
Podolyak further suggested that as a result, "civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego."
The billionaire responds
Musk, the largest shareholder of Starlink, responded to the report of Isaacson's claims, stressing, "The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything."
He added, "There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastapol. The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation."
Facing mounting outrage, Musk tweeted Thursday evening, "Both sides should agree to a truce. Every day that passes, more Ukrainian and Russian youth die to gain and lose small pieces of land, with borders barely changing. This is not worth their lives."
This tweet in turn prompted some to suggest that a sunken Russian fleet might have served to expedite a truce.
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