Threat Intelligence

Senators want clarity from Pentagon on Ukraine Starlink access fiasco

Elon Musk

A trio of Democratic senators on the Armed Services Committee are asking the Department of Defense to look into conflicting reports that Starlink owner Elon Musk “directed the unilateral disabling or impediment of function of Starlink satellite communications” by the Ukrainian military last year.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., wrote to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Friday, saying the reports “raise serious concerns about whether Mr. Musk has personally intervened to undermine a key U.S. partner” in the midst of a war.

“According to public reports, Mr. Isaacson claims that Mr. Musk — after ‘conversations with senior Russian officials’  — interfered with the operation of Starlink services because of his concerns about the impact of the Ukrainian military’s operational decision making as Ukraine has been defending itself from an illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion,” the senators wrote to Austin.

The claim that Musk disabled the Ukrainian military’s access to Starlink emerged in an upcoming book by journalist Walter Isaacson and first reported by CNN, which obtained an except detailing the episode. Initially, the excerpt described Musk proactively disabling Starlink access ahead of a planned Ukrainian attack in Crimea, with the owner reportedly concerned about facilitating an attack on Russian troops that could lead to nuclear escalation.

Musk disputed those claims, saying on his social media site X that he never deactivated Starlink for the Ukrainians, that the satellite services were always geofenced to exclude Crimea and instead he had refused “an emergency request” from the Ukrainian government to enable the access for their operation. Isaacson quickly moved to validate Musk’s claims and amended the excerpt to reflect it.

“The onus is meaningfully different if I refused to act upon a request from Ukraine vs. made a deliberate change to Starlink to thwart Ukraine,” Musk wrote in a Sept. 8 post. “At no point did I or anyone at SpaceX promise coverage over Crimea. Moreover, our terms of service clearly prohibit Starlink for offensive military action, as we are a civilian system, so they were again asking for something that was expressly prohibited.”

Musk said that the “obvious intent” of the Ukrainian attack was to sink a Russian fleet, something he believed would have made his company “explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” as Crimea has been nominally under Russian control since the nation annexed it from Ukraine in 2014.

The senators cite Musk’s comments, saying the move “provided de facto protection to Russian military assets which continue to launch strikes on Ukrainian population centers and critical infrastructure.”

While Musk initially provided Ukraine with free access to Starlink at the outset of the invasion and could operate autonomously, the company has since signed a contract with the Department of Defense earlier this year.

The senators are asking DOD for details by Oct. 31 on any other incidents where Starlink access may have been disabled or restricted during the war in Ukraine, the terms and conditions of the department’s contract with Starlink, and whether the government is exploring alternative means to provide Ukraine with satellite communications that do not reply on a privately owned company.

Derek B. Johnson

Derek is a senior editor and reporter at SC Media, where he has spent the past three years providing award-winning coverage of cybersecurity news across the public and private sectors. Prior to that, he was a senior reporter covering cybersecurity policy at Federal Computer Week. Derek has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hofstra University in New York and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia.

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