A senior Ukrainian presidential aide has reacted with anger after Elon Musk’s SpaceX said it had taken steps to prevent its Starlink satellite communications service from controlling drones, which are critical to Kyiv’s forces in fighting off the Russian invasion.
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer, said at a conference in the US that the surprise decision had been taken because it had never been the company’s intention to allow Starlink to be used “for offensive purposes”.
That prompted an immediate complaint on Thursday morning from Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelenskiy, who argued that Musk’s business had failed to recognise Ukraine’s right to self-defence.
Companies, Podolyak tweeted, had to decide if they were “on the side of the right to freedom” or “on the Russian Federation’s side and its ‘right’ to kill and seize territories” after its unprovoked invasion last year.
Shortly after the start of the war, Musk, SpaceX’s founder, agreed to provide Starlink for nothing to Ukraine, in response to a plea made on Twitter by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine,” Musk said in reply.
Ukrainian forces use Starlink to help control their large network of surveillance drones, critical to monitor Russian troop concentrations and military movements, at a time when Moscow’s forces are on the attack across large parts of the eastern front.
The country’s military rapidly became dependent on Musk’s network, because other internet services were unavailable because of war damage, power outages, jamming or simply because the locations were remote.
Space X’s unilateral announcement also flies in the face of western nations, who are stepping up their military aid to Kyiv to help it resist, agreeing last month to provide tanks. Now they are considering whether to supply combat jets, in response to a pleas made by Zelenskiy on a trip to London, Paris and Brussels this week.
Shotwell said Starlink was “never, never meant to be weaponised” by Ukraine, although it cannot come as a surprise to the company as Kyiv’s military has been using it to pilot drones for months. “Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” she added.
She said SpaceX was able to take measures to curb Ukraine’s use of the technology to pilot drones, although it was not immediately clear what those were and whether Kyiv’s military could work around them.
The row is not the first between Ukraine and Musk. Last October, Musk asked Twitter users to vote on a poll for Russia-Ukraine peace that included Ukraine handing over Crimea and allowing UN-supervised referendums on whether Moscow could keep other land it had occupied after its unprovoked invasion.
“Fuck off is my very diplomatic reply to you,” replied Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, prompting Musk to threaten to stop providing Starlink to Ukraine. Musk had said that providing Starlink was costly to SpaceX, although the US government pays at least some of the costs.