Explained | Elon Musk’s U-turn on Starlink use in Ukraine

Elon Musk’s inconsistent stand on providing connectivity to Ukraine through SpaceX’s Starlink satellite terminals has swung between him saying SpaceX can no longer fund it to “we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free”.

Updated - October 25, 2022 02:04 pm IST

Published - October 25, 2022 09:53 am IST

A file photo of the Starlink logo seen on a smartphone displayed in front of the Ukrainian flag

A file photo of the Starlink logo seen on a smartphone displayed in front of the Ukrainian flag | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Since February 2022, have been vital to Ukraine as it defended itself against Russia. A week ago, according to some reports, the space company sent a letter to Pentagon asking it to take over funding for Starlink terminals in Ukraine as it can no longer continue funding it. Meanwhile, Elon Musk had been facing backlash on Twitter from Ukrainian authorities for his “peace deal”. Musk had also claimed that providing internet connectivity to Ukraine has cost SpaceX $80 million so far. On 15 October, one day after Musk said that SpaceX cannot indefinitely fund its Starlink service in Ukraine, he made a U-turn, saying he will continue funding.

Why did Musk want to pull out of Ukraine?

Musk’s letter to the Pentagon stated that continued use of Starlink satellite would cost more than $120 million by the rest of the year. The cost for the next 12 months was said to be around $400 million. On Twitter, he claimed the service costs SpaceX $80 million, and could exceed $100 million by the end of the year.

Separately, Musk tweeted a “peace deal” that did not go well with the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk who responded with the another tweet, “We’re just following his recommendation”.

The peace plan tweeted by Musk was seen as too generous to Russia by the Ukrainian authorities. According to the plan, Musk argued that Russia should be allowed to keep Crimea. He also suggested that referendums be organized under U.N supervision in the four regions Russia has moved to annex. Musk had suggested these in addition to Ukraine dropping its plan to join N.A.T.O.  

According to CNN, Musk had argued that Ukraine does not want peace negotiations right now and Russia would accept the terms he talked about in his plan. 

What is the situation as of now?

On 15 October, Elon Musk tweeted “The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free”. The tweet came a day after Musk had said that SpaceX would not be able to pay for Starlink in Ukraine indefinitely. It is not clear what changed Musk’s mind or whether his decision will stay. 

Who has been funding Starlink?

According to a report from CNN, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was one of the contributors for early U.S support for Starlink in Ukraine. Other contributors include Poland, the U.K, some NGOs. 

However, these contributions were for the terminals only, and ongoing connectivity, which is more expensive to ensure, is paid for around 70% by Ukraine. However, services provided have been of the highest level -$4,500 a month despite a majority having signed up for $500 a month services. 

This turns out to be around 1.3% of the service rate that SpaceX wants Pentagon to start paying. 

Why is Starlink so important for Ukraine?

Starlink internet terminals have been vital in ensuring continued internet and cellular connectivity in areas that have been destroyed in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. The terminals provided by Starlink have been used for battlefield communications. And have become so important to the war effort that when areas are liberated by Ukrainian troops they have made requests for Starlink services to be activated there. 

Starlink is being used by troops, NGOs and, according to reports from CNN, used to help fly drones monitoring troop movements and artillery fire. 

According to a report from Al Jazeera, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov said that Starlink has helped restore energy and communications infrastructure after Russian cruise missile attacks targeted critical areas in Ukraine.  

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