Starlink | Ukraine’s star-crossed partner

The Elon Musk-owned broadband Internet service has had a rocky relationship with Kyiv over the lengths to which it will aid the country in its war against Russia

Updated - February 18, 2024 12:11 pm IST

Published - February 18, 2024 03:47 am IST

A Starlink satellite internet system is set up near the frontline town of Bakhmut amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Donetsk region in Ukraine.

A Starlink satellite internet system is set up near the frontline town of Bakhmut amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Donetsk region in Ukraine. | Photo Credit: Lisi Niesner

Hours before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Moscow used a malware to disable routers of Viasat, a U.S.-based satellite company, crippling Ukrainian military’s command system, and making it impossible to mount a defence.

Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov frantically reached out to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, via platform X, formerly Twitter.

Mr. Fedorov, in a tweet, requested the tech billionaire to activate his low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband service, Starlink, in the country. In response, Mr. Musk said: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”

Within a few days, Musk-owned SpaceX began shipping Starlink terminals to Kyiv. The rectangle-shaped receivers have since played a crucial role in assisting Ukraine’s armed forces gain advantage over Russian invasion forces in a conflict seen as one of the biggest warfare since World War II.

But recent reports suggest Kyiv is surreptitiously being outmanoeuvred by Moscow as Russia is allegedly procuring Starlink terminals indirectly from private sellers in Arab countries and using them in occupied Ukraine.

Separately, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s top military-intelligence officer, told the Wall Street Journal that Russia is using thousands of Starlink receivers, and the network has been active in occupied parts of Ukraine for “quite a long time.”

Mr. Budanov’s claim suggests Moscow is buying Starlink dishes at a scale that could undercut Ukraine’s major battlefield advantage.

While both Russia and SpaceX have denied reports of buying or selling Starlink terminals to each other, such allegations underscore the rocky relationship between Ukraine and Starlink, a service owned by the world’s richest man.

A swarm in space

In 2019, when Mr. Musk launched Starlink, a satellite swarm, his idea was to provide space-based Internet to people in remote parts of the world. Each LEO satellite in the network has a mass of about a quarter tonne, and they are positioned on the geosynchronous equatorial orbit, at about 550 km above the earth, surrounding the equator.

This positioning enables the satellite swarm to transmit data to the terminals located on the ground consistently, and during all weather conditions. The space company plans to deploy a total of 12,000 satellites in the short-term, and possibly increase the constellation size by another 30,000 LEO satellites in the long-term.

As on February 16, 2024, SpaceX has 5,459 Starlink satellites in orbit, out of 5,850 launched, per data maintained by space historian and astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.

Starlink’s constellation delivers high-speed Internet that supports streaming and video calls. Such capabilities, particularly on the battlefield, provide strategic advantage to the military by connecting defence forces to uninterrupted, secure communication channels and helping them deploy state-of-the-art weapon systems.

Ukraine said last year that about 42,000 terminals were being used in the country by the military, hospitals, and aid organisations. The military uses Mr. Musk’s satellite Internet to connect drones, coordinate artillery fire systems and attack Russia’s positions. Once when Moscow attempted to jam and cut Ukraine’s access to the Internet service, SpaceX countered the sabotage effort by tightening its software.

Taking the tab

All this support comes at a cost, which per Mr. Musk’s October 2022 estimate is about $20 million a month. He also said his company could not support Ukraine’s Starlink needs ‘indefinitely’ for free. [SpaceX contributed about half of the cost of Terminals and services it provides. Rest came from private donors and U.S. aid agency.]

Mr. Musk’s comment on who will foot Ukraine’s Starlink bill came at a time when relationship between Kyiv and SpaceX owner was starting to sour as the billionaire’s twitter post on urging Ukraine to seek a negotiated solution with Russia and cede Crimea for good brought him the ire of Ukrainians.

Mr. Musk later backtracked and said the company would pay for Starlink service. Eventually, in June 2023, the Pentagon signed a contract with SpaceX to supply Starlink service to Ukraine.

Complicated relationship

At another point during the conflict, things got complicated between Mr. Musk and Ukraine when Kyiv’s request to access Starlink to attack a Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol in Crimea was denied by the company as Mr. Musk did not want to be seen as an enabler of escalation in conflict.

Details on why Mr. Musk felt this way came to light in a recently released biography of the billionaire by Walter Isaacson, in which the Tesla CEO says he believed an attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response by Russia.

The book further describes how Starlink turned off connection near the coast of the Russia-occupied Crimea as Ukrainian drones were approaching Russian warships, resulting in “lost connectivity.”

Starlink has played a pivotal role in helping Ukraine mount a strong defence against Russian invasion forces. But Mr. Musk’s changing perspective on the war makes it difficult for Kyiv to call it a fully reliable service. Now with Russia allegedly gaining access to the terminals, Ukraine finds itself on the back foot once again.

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