Elon Musk, Here's What Unplugging Starlink Means For Ukrainians On The Front Line
Tech billionaire Elon Musk has long been considered one of Ukraine's key supporters, but he has just announced restrictions on the Ukrainian military's use of his Starlink satellites. Die Welt spoke to soldiers on the front lines in Bakhmut who are already feeling the effects.
BAKHMUT — Amid ruins in the eastern Ukrainian frontline town of Chasiv Yar, in front of the shattered window of a high-rise building, Ukrainian soldiers search for Russians on a Monday afternoon.
Bogdan Borodai, 25, part of the 24th Battalion "Aidar", operates a gamepad with buttons and stares at a screen. On it, he sees what their small drone is currently filming from the air.
"That right there," Borodai says, tapping the screen, "is a tank. Every few hours, we spot a bunch of Russian soldiers here."
He says their drone, which costs thousands of euros and is made by the Chinese manufacturer DJI, flies up to 15 kilometers, time and again including into the currently fiercely contested town of Bakhmut. Borodai and his team transmit what they film in real time to their higher-level command center, where they make decisions about firing.
In their drone reconnaissance, Borodai and his team rely on the support of a white portable device they have placed near them. It is a Starlink terminal from the U.S. company SpaceX, founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
The Starlink terminals ensure Ukrainian soldiers a stable and fast internet connection everywhere, even in places like Chasiv Yar, where large parts of the infrastructure have been bombed by Russian troops.
"Starlink is one of the most important tools we have in this war," Borodai says. "If that stops now, it would a serious problem."
The soldier has real reasons for concern. In early February, SpaceX announced it would restrict the Ukrainian military's use of Starlink, limiting their possibility to control drones.
According to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, the terminals were "never intended to be a weapon" but only to provide defensive support against the Russian military.
In total, there are now said to be more than 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine, almost a fifth of which the company provided free of charge.
Central to Ukraine's military strategy
Musk's devices have given the Ukrainian military advantages in crucial situations in this war.
As the last Ukrainian soldiers held out in the steel mill of the Russian-taken city of Mariupol in the spring of 2022, they kept in touch with the outside world through the terminals — even in a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky. When Ukrainian troops liberated the previously occupied city of Kherson in mid-November, civilians sent a sign of life to their loved ones via the Starlink connection.
Olga Boichak, a lecturer in digital culture at the University of Sydney, fears devastating consequences for Ukraine if the use of Starlink is restricted.
"SpaceX's decision to shut down the service for its Ukrainian users at a time when they need it most is likely to take a catastrophic human toll," she tells Die Welt.
The Ukrainian military, she said, needs high-speed internet to coordinate maneuvers, including the transmission of aerial photographs. This, she said, currently makes Starlink a centerpiece of Ukraine's communications infrastructure.
"Disabling the equipment would directly sabotage Ukraine's defense efforts and make the country's population more vulnerable to Russia's atrocities." The people of Ukraine should no longer let a private technology company decide their fate, she added.
Falcon 9 launch
Problems with Starlink connection
According to Die Welt research on the ground in Bakhmut, terminals are currently already experiencing increased disruptions.
"We've had a massive problem with Starlink for about a week," says Oleksiy, commander of a unit within the 93rd Brigade. According to him, it looks like the speed has been cut down. Front-line communication with the command center, which depended on the portable devices, was partially interrupted, he said.
Two other soldiers in Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar, who work with Starlink, also shared the problems they faced with Die Welt. It currently takes significantly longer to establish a connection at all, they said.
There are alternatives to Starlink. But no other system works as stably and quickly.
In a forest area, less than 15 minutes by car from Bakhmut, the transmission works on this bitterly cold afternoon. Commander Andrej, who only wants to be called by his combat name "Chechen", mumbles announcements into his radio. Two soldiers stand in front of him at a Soviet 122-mm D30 howitzer, and one suddenly shouts, "Harmata!" The signal to fire. Shortly thereafter, there is thunder and smoke.
The coordinates for the target they are firing at were transmitted by a drone team in the area shortly before. Andrej's team has also firmly integrated Starlink into their procedures. The 26-year-old trudges through the snow to the device set up next to a hut. "We use the terminal to give orders and correct artillery fire. We also get information on where the front lines are so we can deploy supplies."
The commander says that there are alternatives to Starlink. But no other system works as stably and quickly. Dropping it would have dramatic consequences. If Elon Musk believes that Starlink should not be used as an offensive weapon, his argument fails in Ukraine. "We are like an organism that carries a virus called Russia. And Starlink is like a pill that helps us cure it."
Controversial comments about Ukraine
Separately, Ukrainian troops also carry out attacks with armed drones, which are often equipped with small ammunition from grenade launchers. But it is these attacks that soldiers say are currently difficult, especially in Bakhmut, because the Russians shoot down the aircraft or send jamming signals to throw the drones off course.
Boichak, the academic, even considers SpaceX's rationale for restricting terminals in Ukraine hypocritical.
"While SpaceX positions itself as a technology for civilian use, the company was recently involved in a cooperative research and development agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense." This involved the study and testing of Starlink applications on the battlefield.
Musk, the company's founder, has made controversial comments about the war in Ukraine on several occasions.
In October, weeks before the liberation of Kherson, he spread his vision of a peace plan via Twitter. Among other things, he suggested that Crimea be recognized as part of Russia and that Ukraine remain "neutral" in the future.
Then in late October, according to a CNN report, the Ukrainian military experienced a temporary outage of 1,300 Starlink devices. The outage was justified at the time with a reference to "lack of funding". Previously, the company had complained to the U.S. government that it was no longer able to cover the costs of the terminals themselves.
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