Musk ordered Starlink shut down over Crimea for security concerns: CNN
The CNN report says Musk's motivation to shut down Starlink stemmed from concerns about the potential for a nuclear war breaking out.
A report by CNN on Thursday revealed, citing an upcoming biography of SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, that he made a personal intervention by shutting down Starlink to prevent a Ukrainian attack on Crimea last year.
According to the report, his motivation stemmed from concerns about the potential for a nuclear conflict.
The biography written by Walter Isaacson, which is scheduled to be published next week, details how Ukrainian drones "lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly" as they approached the Crimean coast.
The book states that Musk privately instructed SpaceX engineers to disable Starlink service near the Crimean coast as he was concerned that Russia might use nuclear weapons in response to a Ukrainian attack on the peninsula, which he likened to a "mini-Pearl Harbor".
Ukrainian Digital Transformation Minister Mikhail Fedorov later asked Musk to reactivate the signal through text messages, highlighting the capabilities of the sea drones. But Musk declined, stating that Ukraine was taking actions that he believed were excessive and risked inviting a strategic defeat by launching an attack on Crimea.
The failed drone strike was first publicized in July by The New York Times, but it did not include information about the conversation between Musk and Fedorov.
In February 2022, SpaceX donated more than 20,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine, with the aim of providing internet access and communications to civilians. However, the systems were quickly used for military purposes, which led to Musk having to justify his actions to both Russia and the US.
"How am I in this war?" Isaacson quotes Musk as saying during one of their conversations. "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."
After the Crimea attack failed, Musk told the Pentagon that SpaceX would no longer provide Starlink services to Ukraine for free. However, after this was reported by CNN, Musk reversed his decision and tweeted that SpaceX would continue to provide Starlink services to Ukraine free of charge.
"The Pentagon had a $145 million check ready to hand to me, literally," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told Isaacson. "Then Elon succumbed to the bullshit on Twitter and to the haters at the Pentagon who leaked the story."
According to the biography, SpaceX eventually secured funding from the US and some EU governments to provide Ukraine with another 100,000 satellite dishes in early 2023.
Musk has since stated that SpaceX would not do anything that could escalate the conflict in Ukraine, including using Starlink for long-range drone strikes.
After CNN posted its report, Musk reacted by posting on X (formerly known as Twitter) to clarify the situation.
The Starlink regions in question were not activated. SpaceX did not deactivate anything.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 7, 2023
"SpaceX did not deactivate anything," he said. "There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol. 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," he explained.
Walter Isaacson is a historian, author, and journalist. He is the former chairman and CEO of the Aspen Institute, the former editor of Time magazine, and the biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs.