Sunday, February 25, 2024

Russia is Using Starlink in Ukraine, Pentagon and Spacex Clarify Involvement

HomeWARRussia is Using Starlink in Ukraine, Pentagon and Spacex Clarify Involvement

Reports have emerged that Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite internet terminals are being delivered en masse to Russian forces occupying parts of Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers claim Russia’s military has started utilizing the Starlink network, sparking outrage among pro-Ukraine voices.

The alleged use of the service was first reported by Andriy Tsaplienko, a Ukrainian journalist, who shared screenshots of posts on social media from two Ukrainian soldiers.

“The military writes that the occupiers have Starlink with licensed accounts,” Tsaplienko wrote on Telegram. “They began to deliver Starlink en masse, via Dubai, accounts are activated, they work in the occupied territories.”

One soldier claimed on social media that Russian forces “can already see their Starlinks,” adding: “I honestly thought they would do it sooner.”

In response to the reports, SpaceX issued a statement saying the company “does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military.

“Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country. SpaceX has never sold or marketed Starlink in Russia, nor has it shipped equipment to locations in Russia,” the statement read.

SpaceX also denied operating Starlink in Dubai or authorizing third-party resellers. “If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorized party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed,” the company said.

The statement did not address whether Starlink could be used by Russian forces in occupied regions of Ukraine. The availability map on the Starlink website appears to include contested and Russian-occupied areas.

Musk Provided Starlink to Ukraine, Later Restricted Its Use

SpaceX first provided its Starlink satellite internet service to Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022. Musk said the system offered Ukraine a “major battlefield advantage.

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In June 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense contracted with SpaceX to purchase Starlink services for Ukraine’s military. SpaceX has launched nearly 4,000 Starlink satellites into orbit to date.

However, in September 2022, Musk admitted he had previously declined a Ukrainian request to activate Starlink in the Black Sea. He said he wanted to avoid direct involvement in the conflict.

“There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” Musk tweeted, referring to the Russian naval base in Crimea. “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.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the recent reports of Russian forces using Starlink in occupied Ukraine. A spokesperson said operational details should come from Ukrainian partners.

Russia Reportedly Acquiring Starlink Through Dubai Loophole

Although SpaceX says its service does not function within Russia’s borders, Russian news outlets claim Starlink kits are being sold through online stores there.

The systems are allegedly supplied via an intermediary in Dubai and provided to Russian volunteer units in occupied parts of Ukraine, according to Russian publications like BFM.

One Russian news site said Starlink can be used by Russian forces in annexed areas of Ukraine and Crimea. “Merchants do not hide the fact that Starlink kits are addressed to participants [of the war] and are bought up by them in large quantities,” it reported.

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Quoting anonymous Russian volunteers, the outlet said many Starlink units are being utilized in battle. It cited Dubai as the hub for purchasing the equipment wholesale.

If true, experts say funneling Starlink through Dubai could violate sanctions on Russia. It also raises concerns whether Starlink aids Russia’s war effort in contested regions.

SpaceX Starshield Contract With Pentagon Under Scrutiny

The potential use of Starlink by Russian troops has put a spotlight on SpaceX’s Starshield contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.

In December 2022, SpaceX was awarded a $149 million contract by the Pentagon to test jam-resistant satellite communications for national security space launches. Starshield aims to protect critical DOD capabilities from electronic warfare attacks.

Critics now question whether Musk’s reported restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Starlink, along with the newly surfaced rumors, should disqualify SpaceX from the contract.

Musk’s Relations With Moscow Also Under Fire

Musk’s past comments on the war, as well as his relations with Moscow, have faced renewed backlash over the Starlink controversy.

In October 2022, Musk drew international condemnation for tweeting Ukraine should seek a negotiated peace deal and cede some land to Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responded with his own poll asking if people prefer a Musk who supports Ukraine or Russia.

Musk also held a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2021. After the call, Musk said Putin was “highly motivated to have peace” in Ukraine.

Some argue Musk’s neutrality on the conflict and openness to engage with the Kremlin should wave red flags about SpaceX’s role in Ukraine. They believe the U.S. government should reconsider granting security contracts to his companies.

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Others caution against jumping to conclusions until more evidence surfaces about how Russia acquired Starlink. But distrust of Musk persists among portions of Ukraine’s leadership.

Fallout From Controversy As Russia Renews Offensive

The reports come as Russia initiates a new major offensive in eastern Ukraine, nearly one year into the full-scale war.

If substantiated, Ukraine’s allies may pressure the U.S. to strip SpaceX of its defense contracts and enforce tougher sanctions on channeling tech to Russia. Politicians in Congress recently scrutinized Musk’s Twitter takeover on national security grounds.

Within Ukraine’s military, confidence in Starlink’s reliability could erode amid suspicions that Russia exploits it. Seeking alternative satellite communications could become a higher priority for Kyiv.

For SpaceX, the controversy threatens its public image as a provider of vital connectivity during the war.

Musk may go on a PR offensive to reinforce claims about Starlink’s availability in Ukraine and absence in Russia. But the billionaire’s credibility has already suffered during the conflict.

More broadly, the reports spotlight vulnerabilities in cutting-edge consumer tech falling into the hands of unwelcome users. Even with geofencing restrictions in place, the alleged weaponization of Starlink shows the challenges of controlling dual-use systems.

As Russia seeks to gain an edge in launching its latest offensive, the fog of war makes Starlink’s role on both sides difficult to unravel. But the truth could alter the course of security assistance to Ukraine, military space contracts in the U.S., and Musk’s divisive stature amid the crisis.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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