Ukraine’s existence largely depends on Elon Musk. The satellite connection provided by his company SpaceX is “the backbone of the Ukrainian army’s communications.” These are words expressed this September at a conference in Paris by Musk himself, an American billionaire of South African origin who has revolutionized the space race. Thousands of antennas of its Starlink satellite data transmission service are located in every Ukrainian unit on the war front. If these stopped working, Ukrainian defenses would collapse.
The country’s security depends on Musk’s own agenda, who on several occasions has been conciliatory with Russia, but also on his power to unilaterally cut off Starlink’s coverage on the war front. kyiv is looking for alternatives for its military communications, and has proven to have them, but recognizes that it is impossible to separate itself from Musk. His main hope is that the United States Government guarantees that SpaceX will not leave them in the lurch.
There are about 42,000 Starlink data transmission terminals in Ukraine. Nine months ago there were 23,000, as quantified by Mijaílo Fedorov, Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. Most of them are used by the army. “Starlink is the lifeblood of our military communications,” Fedorov told The New York Times in July. The terminals are mainly acquired by private donors, although also by governments allied with kyiv. There are forums on social networks specialized in tutorials on their use and on the countries where you can buy them at the best price. If the terminal has been acquired in Spain, for example, the owner can transfer the address to Ukraine.
Starlink antennas are used in multiple ways on the war front: a platoon can use them to communicate with family, distract themselves with mobile applications, but above all they are used for war purposes. The connection allows sharing orders and the location of the enemy’s coordinates in the applications used by the army; The antennas are also incorporated into assault force vehicles to communicate with command and above all, the receivers are installed in attack drones to maintain the connection with the aircraft over long distances.
“Starlink has been a phenomenal asset for Ukraine. It is easy to transport, in a backpack, vehicles with large antennas are no longer necessary,” British Air Marshal John Stringer explained on August 31 in a document from the RUSI – the United Kingdom’s defense studies reference centre. “Ukraine has shown that when it comes to military resources from space, from images to communications, what until a few years ago was only within the reach of a few (countries), can now be within the reach of everyone,” added the senior rank of the United Kingdom Air Force.
A study this September by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) emphasized the same: “The rapid deployment of Starlink terminals in Ukraine demonstrates the advantages of commercial systems compared to military ones. “They are cheap compared to military and government satellites, and they are faster to produce and install.” The price of the service in Spain, for example, is 65 euros per month, plus 450 euros in a single payment to purchase the equipment. In Ukraine, the cost of the equipment is 560 euros, in addition to 70 euros per month.
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Cut the signal
However, in the last year alarms have been raised about the risks that “the backbone” of the Ukrainian army’s communications is Musk. Since the November 2022 offensive that liberated half the province of Kherson, there have been warnings from high-ranking officials that the Starlink satellite connection would suddenly disappear during offensive operations, putting the lives of soldiers at risk. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell confirmed last February that the company had mechanisms to cut the Starlink signal.
Shotwell stressed that Starlink “has never been intended to be used as a weapon”: “There are things we can do to limit this use; There are things we can do, and that we have done.” Shotwell specifically criticized the use of his product to control attack drones. Kirilo Budanov, general in command of the Ukrainian Intelligence Services, did not take the hint on September 9 at a conference in Kiev: “Starlink has played an essential role, and will continue to play it, particularly in drone communication. ”.
Budanov said he doubts that it is only Musk who makes the decision to “press a button” and disconnect Starlink. But the billionaire himself confirmed on September 8 on X (formerly Twitter), the social network of which he is the owner, that on at least one occasion he intervened directly. The Ukrainian Government asked Musk in September 2022 to activate the connection of its satellites over Crimea in order to carry out a drone attack against the Russian fleet. Musk rejected it: “If I had accepted the request, then SpaceX would have been complicit in a major act of war and an escalation of the conflict.”
SpaceX began marketing the Starlink internet service in 2021, progressively expanding the countries in which it could be used. In February 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine began and Russia applied the strategy of cutting off telephony in the occupied territories and on the front, Kiev asked Musk to activate the Starlink service in Ukraine, which he accepted. Musk and Shotwell have reiterated that Starlink activated this service for civilian use, although over time, as they have publicly admitted, they assumed that it could also be used for military communications, but not for offensive actions.
The line of what is allowed and what is not is fickle. There are multiple examples in the Starlink Facebook group for Ukraine. This is one of the largest communities on this social network dedicated to answering questions and getting terminals. In a recent comment, a soldier from a Territorial Defense Forces battalion explained that he had obtained a terminal in Spain but that, when transferring the new address to Ukraine, he had indicated that it was for a military unit and the provider told him had denied the shipment, alleging that the contract with Starlink specified that its use can only be civil. Other forum members criticized the soldier for giving away too much information.
“There’s nothing to do”
Musk’s confirmation that he had aborted an attack in Crimea opened an intense debate in the Facebook group Starlink for Ukraine. “It is impossible to win this war with other people’s weapons,” said, pessimistically, an officer who serves in the Armed Forces. This soldier, who responds to the initials SD, also provided information about the operation of one of the resources that SpaceX has to deactivate the service, geofencing, which consists of disabling the use of terminals in a certain territory. “There is nothing to do with this,” explained SD, “each terminal has its IP address and is linked to its location. If the device crosses the limit, it is disconnected from the network.”
Alternatives to Starlink are scarce but they exist, as confirmed to EL PAÍS by the captain of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Víctor Tregubov. The proof of this is that Ukrainian drone bomb attacks periodically occur against Russian territory and in Crimea, areas where SpaceX does not operate. What technology does kyiv use in these cases? It’s a state secret. “Of course there are alternatives, there are projects underway in the United States and Ukraine, governments of allied countries may help us,” says Tregubov, “but without Starlink, everything would be much more difficult.”
There are ten large commercial companies that offer satellite internet, but none can compare to the quality of service, price and massive use of SpaceX. The Swedish company Satcube donated 100 terminals of its service this year, also for transportation and easy start-up, but the size of the company, much smaller than SpaceX, makes it unviable for it to replace Starlink.
The main hope is that the United States Government prevents Musk’s decisions from being imposed, in favor of ending the war by granting part of Ukraine to Russia. The founder of SpaceX himself has admitted to suffering from the weight of having to be an actor in the war; That is why he created a new service at the end of 2022, Starshield, which allows the United States Armed Forces—and theoretically, those of other governments—to have control of certain Starlink satellites and certain terminals. Following this initiative, the Pentagon has provided 500 Starlink terminals this year that cannot be intervened by SpaceX, according to The New York Times.
But both Tregubov and other soldiers interviewed for this article have doubts about this. Tregubov and a senior officer from an Artillery brigade on the front in Donetsk province claim that multiple Starlink terminals across the front stopped working for two hours early last Wednesday, just at the time when the Forces Ukrainian air forces carried out an attack against the Russian fleet in Crimea. Both the press office of the Ukrainian General Staff and the High Command for the Southern Front have denied to this newspaper that they detected any problem, but Ukrainian media such as Pravda did publish that there was a large-scale failure in the connection, an error that, according to SpaceX assured, it was produced in multiple international markets.
Alexander Rose is a member of the Tora special forces group, serving on the Zaporizhia front. Starlink is a fundamental tool for Tora, which they use to control their drones and even in assault operations on Russian positions. “I am convinced that the United States Government has arguments to convince Elon (Musk),” Rose said last Thursday to this newspaper, a few days after the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, emphasized in an interview in the CNN that his Government “wishes and expects that this technology will continue to be fully operational for Ukrainians.”
Rose points out that they will always have more rudimentary but secure communication systems, such as radio transmitters or cell phones that work without data internet—smart cell phones are easy for the enemy to locate. “We have fought against Russia for eight years without Starlink (in the war against the Donbas separatists),” adds Tregubov, “and we can do it again.”
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