Elon Musk sparks fury by admitting he thwarted Ukrainian drone attack on Putin’s naval fleet

SpaceX founder says his refusal to allow Kyiv to use his satellite network was an attempt to avoid complicity in an ‘act of war’

Chris Stevenson
Friday 08 September 2023 17:52 BST
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Elon Musk has admitted that his refusal to grant Ukraine permission to use his Starlink satellite network was an attempt to prevent a drone attack on a Russian naval fleet – with one Ukrainian official saying that his country is paying “the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego”.

The Starlink satellite internet service, which is run by the technology billionaire’s SpaceX company, has been a digital lifeline both for Ukraine’s military and for civilians in areas where Russia’s invasion has left infrastructure devastated or jammed.

An extract of a new biography of Musk, published by CNN on Thursday, said that the drones – packed with explosives – “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly” during the thwarted assault last year, after Musk ordered his engineers to turn off the network. Musk is said to have feared that a strike on the ports of Russian-occupied Crimea would amount to a “mini Pearl Harbor”. Having apparently spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States – who is reported to have told him that an attack on Crimea would trigger a nuclear response – Musk is then said to have ordered his engineers to turn off Starlink coverage “within 100km of the Crimean coast”.

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“How am I in this war?” Musk is said to have asked the author of the new book, Walter Isaacson, who has previously published biographies of Steve Jobs and Henry Kissinger. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes,” Musk said.

In posts on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, which Musk also owns, overnight into Friday, the billionaire denied accusations that he had turned off the Starlink network in the area, but said that he had not agreed to a request from Ukraine to activate it all the way to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, which is currently (as it was at the time) occupied by Russia and home to its Black Sea fleet.

“The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything,” Musk said. “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” he added, “the obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

In response to the claims in the book, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, blasted Musk, given that Russia uses its ships in the Black Sea to fire long-range missiles and also to provide an effective blockade of the Ukrainian coast in the area.

“Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake,” Mr Podolyak wrote on X. “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities,” he added.

“As a result, civilians, children are being killed,” Mr Podolyak said. “This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego. However, the question still remains: why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder? And do they now realise that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?”

Ukraine has increased its drone strikes on Crimea and on areas inside Russia in recent weeks, as part of plans to disrupt Moscow in as many ways as possible as it continues with a summer counteroffensive on the ground in Ukraine in an effort to reclaim territory from Russian forces. Moscow said it had downed a drone over Crimea on Friday.

Russia itself has repeatedly struck Ukrainian cities throughout the 18 months of its invasion so far. Four people were killed and scores wounded in a deadly attack in which a missile slammed into a police building in President Zelensky’s hometown, the central city of Kryvyi Rih. Ukraine’s interior minister Ihor Klymenko initially said a police officer had been killed, but officials later said the victim was a private security guard. Two women and a 46-year-old man were killed in the village of Odradakamianka in the southern region of Kherson, regional governor Oleksandr Prokudin said.

Russia also carried out its fifth drone attack of this week on the southern region of Odesa, which is home to Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea and the Danube River which are used to export grain and other agricultural products.

In Kyiv, Mr Zelensky said that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was behind the death of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose fighters had been active on the front line in Ukraine before Mr Prigozhin led a short-lived mutiny against Moscow in June. “The fact that he killed Prigozhin – at least, that’s the information we all have, not any other kind – that also speaks to his rationality, and about the fact that he is weak,” Mr Zelensky said.

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