This is so important I’m going to start with a tl;dr: Elon Musk got caught with his hand in the national security cookie jar, sabotaging or blocking a major Ukrainian military operation after conversations with a Russian government official.
Now let’s unpack this.
Last month I wrote about the rise of the global oligarchs and I made particular mention of Elon Musk. Even if you set aside the various things you may not like about Musk he has amassed a degree of economic power that is novel and dangerous in itself even if he had the most benign of intentions and the most stable personality. More than half the operating satellites in the sky are owned and controlled by him. Overnight we finally got confirmation of something that has long been suspected or hinted at but which none of the players had an interest in confirming. Last September Musk either cut off or refused to activate his Starlink satellite service near the Crimean coast during a surprise Ukrainian drone attack on the Russian Navy at anchor at its Sevastopol naval port.
Ukraine has made extensive use of naval drones. But it at least sounds like this was supposed to be a massed attack that would have done extensive damage to the Russian Navy and the naval port itself and thus seriously degraded Russia’s ability to launch missile attacks against Ukraine. In other words, it doesn’t sound like this was just any attack, though the details are sketchy.
On its face you might say, they’re Musk’s satellites and he’s in charge of who gets to use them and how. But of course it’s not that simple. It’s a good illustration of how Musk’s economic power has crept into domains that are more like the power of a state.
Starlink is a network of satellites providing robust internet connectivity without reliance on any ground infrastructure. This is critical in Ukraine since the ground infrastructure has all been degraded or destroyed. Starlink is owned by and made possible by the launch capacity of SpaceX, Musk’s space launch company, which is currently the sole means the U.S. has to launch satellites into space.
Musk made business and financial decisions that, under our economic system, entitles him to the vast profits of SpaceX. But he didn’t create it on his own. The company was built on the back of U.S. government contracts. In essence the U.S. government fronted the money to build SpaceX by awarding it contracts that made its business viable. Musk and SpaceX are also U.S. military contractors. That comes with a big set of responsibilities and restrictions.
Raytheon isn’t at liberty to sell its high tech weaponry to Russia or China if the price is right. These contractors are legally and financially bound into the U.S. national security apparatus. So is Musk and SpaceX. Or at least they’re supposed to be. A critical part of this story is that Musk took this action after conversations with an unnamed Russian government official which, Musk claimed, led him to worry the attack could escalate into a nuclear conflict.
Of course the threat of escalation has hung over the Ukraine war from the beginning. Countless civilian and military officials in the U.S., Europe and across the globe have been analyzing and trying to manage that risk for 18 months. We should take Musk’s claim about fears of nuclear escalation with a huge, huge grain of salt. There are many other threats and inducements that could have come up in these conversations. But let’s assume for the moment that’s what the Russian official told him. It’s simply not Musk’s judgment to make. That’s not only the case as a matter of basic democratic accountability and national security law. Musk is the last person you’d want making such a decision. He’s a mercurial weirdo whose views visibly change by the day in reaction to whoever is giving him the most comments love on Twitter. His national security thinking is at best juvenile and fatuous. The idea that such a call was Musk’s to make is as absurd as it is terrifying.
Let’s imagine a more generous to Musk scenario.
Maybe that Russian official said to Musk: Turn off your satellites over our naval base or we will start shooting down your satellites. In technical terms that is not an idle threat. You might say, well, war’s hell, Elon. But he might reply, was the U.S. government prepared to reimburse me for the satellites and disrupted service contract fees that I incurred not for any sane business reason but to advance U.S. national security interests?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure I know what the answer is. In fact, I suspect there is no answer. The whole situation is one that mixes and matches private sector and national security in very scrambled ways. And Musk who is someone who pushes every envelope and is more than happy to use his money, domestic celebrity and control of a critical communications hub to wreak havoc with any U.S. government that calls him to account. Let’s not forget that it was just after these events that Musk suddenly started advocating his personal ‘peace plan’ on Twitter — which surprisingly seem to match all of Russia’s demands.
Let me be clear that I don’t think that last scenario is what happened. But we don’t know that it didn’t. My point in discussing that possibility is to illustrate the fact that it’s not just that Elon Musk sucks, which he does. The whole situation sucks. You simply can’t have critical national security infrastructure in the hands of a Twitter troll who’s a soft touch for whichever foreign autocrat blows some smoke up his behind. But that’s what we have here.
As I said above, we’ve known or suspected for a long time that stuff like this had happened. Musk revealed at the time that he’d been talking with Russian officials. Indeed, at one point he said he had spoken to Putin himself on more than one occasion during this period. But we shouldn’t take anything he says at face value. The U.S. hasn’t wanted to get into this publicly because they don’t want a public spat with Musk. (This is the subject of Ronan Farrow’s recent piece in The New Yorker.) This applies even more to Ukraine which still relies on as much Starlink access as it can get. In response to these latest revelations the Ukrainians’ gloves seem to have come off. One of President Zelensky’s top advisors went off on Musk on Twitter last night essentially arguing that Musk personally has blood on his hand for all the subsequent attacks launched from those ships and facilities into Ukraine.
We need to learn more details about just what happened here. A congressional investigation wouldn’t be a bad idea. But we know enough to see that a guy in charge of a lot of critical technology the U.S. relies on is happy to cut deals with the other team.