Opinion: Elon Musk’s moves in Ukraine show he’s no master of … – The Globe and Mail

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He co-directs the Outer Space Institute.

Elon Musk was in full “crisis-hero-drama mode,” according to a new biography by Walter Isaacson.

It was September, 2022, and six aquatic drones had just set off from Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Packed with explosives, their intended targets were Russian warships in port at Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea.

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The drones were fitted with small satellite dishes that enable live video-feeds through SpaceX’s constellation of communications satellites, named Starlink. But Mr. Musk, the company’s CEO, had spoken with the Russian ambassador to the United States, who “explicitly told him that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response.”

According to Mr. Isaacson’s original account, Mr. Musk “secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometres of the Crimean coast.” As the drones approached the Russian ships, they “lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.”

Mr. Musk disputes this account, insisting that he simply turned down a Ukrainian request to extend Starlink’s coverage to enable the attack. Mr. Isaacson now backs this new version, even though it contradicts his just-released book.

No matter. Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, argued last week that Mr. Musk’s interference meant Ukrainian drones couldn’t destroy that part of the Russian fleet, enabling the ships to continue firing missiles at Ukrainian cities. “As a result, civilians, children are being killed,” he tweeted.

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Russian warships have indeed been firing missiles at cities indiscriminately. The warships are legitimate military targets. What makes a tech billionaire believe that he has the right to decide how Ukrainians can respond?

Then, Starlink was turned off in the other Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine. The practice, called “geo-fencing,” resulted in Ukrainian soldiers losing communications the moment they pushed back the Russian lines. It slowed the liberation of villages that have suffered many alleged war crimes.

Mr. Musk became involved in war with seemingly good intentions. One of SpaceX’s competitors, Viasat, had been providing communications to the Ukrainian military. On the morning of the invasion, a cyberattack destroyed thousands of its ground-based modems. Mr. Musk promptly announced that he would provide Starlink service – for free. He sent thousands of the small satellite dishes, the first 500 of which arrived within two days.

Using Starlink, Ukrainian soldiers can receive live video-feeds from low-cost drones that enable rapid precision strikes, usually from artillery.

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But there are limits to Mr. Musk’s generosity. After Ukraine became dependent on Starlink, he told the Pentagon that SpaceX could no longer provide the service for free and needed US$400-million in annual subsidies. The shakedown worked.

In making decisions about Starlink’s coverage, Mr. Musk is also factoring in the effects on his other companies. Last October, he revealed that the Chinese government had “made clear its disapproval” about Starlink helping Ukraine “circumvent Russia’s cut-off of the internet.”

About half of all Tesla cars are produced in China. Mr. Musk sought to placate his hosts by publicly recommending “a special administrative zone for Taiwan that is reasonably palatable.” He said “it’s possible, and I think probably, in fact, that they could have an arrangement that’s more lenient than Hong Kong.”

But it is Russia’s influence on Mr. Musk that is most remarkable. Mr. Isaacson reproduces an e-mail exchange with Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, in which Mr. Musk writes: “Once Russia is fully mobilized, they will destroy all infrastructure throughout Ukraine and push far past the current territories. NATO will have to intervene to prevent all of Ukraine falling to Russia. At that point, risk of WW3 becomes very high.”

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Mr. Musk proposed a peace plan whereby Ukraine would surrender all territories occupied by Russia – a plan that, in the words of former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “could have been taken straight from a Kremlin disinformation unit.”

The good news is, Western governments are now working to reduce Mr. Musk’s power. A new contract between the Pentagon and Starlink gives the U.S. military control of hundreds of Starlink satellites and allows it to determine the extent of their coverage.

Others are building up their own capabilities. The British and French have invested in OneWeb, with 600 satellites in orbit. The European Union will spend €6-billion on its own constellation. Canada has made a large commitment to Ottawa-based Telesat.

In April, Mr. Musk tweeted: “Between, Tesla, Starlink & Twitter, I may have more real-time global economic data in one head than anyone ever.”

Data is not wisdom. As Mr. Isaacson’s biography makes clear, Mr. Musk only thinks that he understands geopolitics. He needs the support of Western governments to survive.

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Hubris is the downfall of many heroes. Mr. Musk should read the ancient Greeks.

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