The Russia-Ukraine war also takes place on Musk’s Starlink

Elizabeth Smith

The Starlink satellite terminals, crucial for military support in Ukraine since the outbreak of the war following aggression by Russia, are back in the spotlight again. But from the other side of the conflict.

This time Ukrainian intelligence claims that Russian troops are using Starlink. That is, the satellite Internet constellation managed by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk. With more than 5,000 small satellites in low-Earth orbit, it provides high-speed, low-latency Internet access to millions of people living in underserved and remote areas globally.

To date, the Starlink satellite Internet terminals donated by SpaceX to Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict with Russia have helped Kiev’s armed forces maintain communications and coordination on the battlefield. Although in October 2022 Musk began limiting Starlink operations in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, including Crimea.

Meanwhile, SpaceX, owner of Starlink, denied reports that it had sold equipment to the Russian government or military. However, neither Musk nor Starlink have outlined any proactive efforts to prevent Russian forces from obtaining terminals or connecting to Starlink, the Guardian notes.
Today even the Kremlin was quick to deny this hypothesis.

The Kiev accusations about Starlink

The Central Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (GUR) said on Sunday that Russian troops are using Elon Musk’s satellite system.

“The Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine confirms the use of Starlink satellite communication systems by the Russian occupiers at the front,” he wrote on Telegram.

In support of this thesis, the Central Intelligence Directorate published on Facebook the excerpt of an interception of the troops of the 83rd Airborne Assault Brigade of the Russian Federation.

“Intercepts of the invaders’ conversations prove that Starlink system terminals were installed in some units of the Russian Armed Forces to gain access to the Internet,” Gur reported. “There are cases of use of this equipment by the Russian occupiers. It is becoming systematic,” said Gur spokesman Andrii Yusov.

For its part, Russia has denied the claims of Ukrainian intelligence.

Musk’s position

The Kremlin’s statements follow the denials of the American billionaire Musk on the X platform (formerly Twitter), a social network owned by him.

However, as the Guardian points out, the US entrepreneur does not appear to have asked whether Russian soldiers could obtain and use Starlink terminals in any case. In its own statement, Starlink did not even say anything about their possible use in occupied areas of Ukraine.

On February 8, Starlink, the SpaceX division that operates the satellite broadband connectivity service, said that its terminals were not active in Russia and that SpaceX had never sold or marketed the service in Russia or shipped equipment there.

“If SpaceX becomes aware that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorized party, we will investigate the complaint and take action to decommission the terminal if confirmed,” Starlink said in a statement posted on X.

The military use of Musk’s technology

Last year, Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Main Directorate of Ukrainian Intelligence, said that “all front lines are using them”, CNN recalls.

But SpaceX has aimed to prevent the Ukrainian military from using Starlink terminals to remotely pilot attack drones or for other offensive purposes, as SpaceX president and chief operations officer Gwynne Shotwell announced last February.

Starlink technology “is not intended to be used as a weapon,” the SpaceX representative specified. “However, the Ukrainians exploited it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” SpaceX president and chief operations officer Gwynne Shotwell noted last February. The SpaceX president referred to reports that the Ukrainian military had used the Starlink service to control drones.

This is because Ukraine wanted its forces to be able to use the system for operations in Russian-controlled areas of its territory, although Kiev now complains that the Russians, as well as the Ukrainians, are using it in disputed areas, explains the Financial Times.

But the introduction or reintroduction of so-called “geofencing” to stop Russia’s use of Starlink on the front line could also affect the devices of the Ukrainian army, given the closeness of the positions of the two sides.

Read also: China challenges Elon Musk’s Starlink: ready to launch 13,000 satellites

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