The Pentagon is talking to Elon Musk, who has threatened to stop funding Ukraine’s access to his Starlink system.
(Bloomberg) — The Pentagon confirmed it’s talking with Elon Musk, who has threatened to stop funding Ukraine’s access to his Starlink satellite communications system, but pointedly added that the US is also looking into other options.
“We are engaged in talking with SpaceX,” the space exploration company owned by Musk, Defense Department spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters Friday. At the same time, she said, the US, Ukraine and allies are also “assessing our options” with other communications companies.
Musk, the world’s richest person, threatened Friday to cut financial support for the Starlink high-speed broadband system that has become an essential communications tool as Ukraine combats Russia’s invasion. He said SpaceX can’t carry the cost indefinitely. His move followed sharp criticism from Kyiv for Musk’s public comments suggesting the government cede territory in exchange for peace with Russia.
Responding to recent comments from a Ukrainian envoy that he should “f*** off” for his proposals, which included UN-monitored referendums in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, Musk retorted on Twitter on Friday: “We’re just following his recommendation.”
As well as helping Ukraine’s forces on the ground, Starlink terminals have supported infrastructure across the country, and any move to withdraw them could potentially hinder progress in counteroffensives against Russian troops. It would also risk a backlash not just from Ukraine but also its allies who have provided financial and military support for months without conditions.
SpaceX has an established relationship with the Pentagon, Singh noted, having won contracts for national security space launches.
In a statement later, she added, “We can confirm the department received correspondence from SpaceX about the funding of Starlink, their satellite communications product in Ukraine. We remain in communication with SpaceX about this and other topics.” CNN has reported that SpaceX warned the Pentagon it may no longer partially fund Starlink in Ukraine unless the US military provides tens of millions of dollars of support per month.
On Friday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to play down the feud. “Like it or not, @elonmusk helped us survive the most critical moments of the war,” he tweeted. Ukraine “will find a solution to keep #Starlink working. We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations.”
There was no indication that Musk was intending immediate action to withdraw Starlink from Ukraine. SpaceX “is not asking to recoup past expenses” on Starlink services in Ukraine, he said in another post, but it can’t sustain the financial aid or send thousands more terminals to Ukraine.
Starlink terminals in Ukraine are using data as much as 100 times the amount of typical households, Musk said. A week ago he tweeted that Starlink in Ukraine had cost SpaceX $80 million, which would likely surpass $100 million by the end of the year. Musk’s net worth is $209.2 billion, according to Bloomberg data.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, has said previously the country is getting Starlink terminals free of charge, although he added there might be a different arrangement between Musk and the US Agency for International Development and European entities which provided Starlinks to Ukraine.
Ukraine has 20,000 Starlink terminals, provided evenly by USAID, Poland, the European Union and private companies, according to an Oct. 5 report from state-run news agency Ukrinform that cited Ministry of Digitalization data.
Poland purchased 11,700 Starlink terminals for Ukraine, including 5,000 acquired by state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen SA, according to Janusz Cieszynski, the government official in charge of cybersecurity.
“SpaceX promised to cover the service cost for the terminals purchased by Orlen,” he said by phone. The Polish government, meanwhile, is “covering the full cost of service” for each terminal it bought “amounting to around $50 monthly” per device.
Musk angered Ukrainians — from Zelenskiy down — with his recent suggestion that Ukraine should seek a negotiated solution to the invasion by Russia and cede Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, for good.
Musk also launched a Twitter poll asking citizens of recently annexed occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea to decide if they want to live in Russia or Ukraine, days after Ukraine, Europe and the US denounced the annexation moves of President Vladimir Putin.
Ian Bremmer, head of political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a note to clients this week that Musk told him about speaking recently with Putin.
Bremmer said that conversation came before Musk posted his tweets urging Ukraine to find a negotiated solution to the war. Both Musk and the Kremlin subsequently denied he had spoken with Putin this year.
EXPLAINER: How Musk Sparked a Race to Send Satellites into ‘LEO’
(Updates with Pentagon confirming correspondence with SpaceX in eighth paragraph)
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.