The Ukrainian government has been dependent upon Starlink satellites to keep technology up and running as they battle the Russian invasion. Nine months into Russian’s escalation and the country is still reliant upon the benevolence of Elon Musk to continue footing the bill for the satellites – a debt the country is not sure it can continue.
Forty-five days prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, SpaceX was negotiating with Ukraine for the use of Starlink – a satellite internet constellation, owned by Elon Musk, operated by SpaceX. In late February of this year, Russian columns were advancing toward Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv. The Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov asked Elon Musk via Twitter to aid Ukraine with Starlink. Musk and SpaceX immediately provided equipment and activated Starlink service to Ukraine.
In March, Ukrainian Special Forces fighters carried the first Starlink terminal (ground station) behind enemy lines into besieged Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters were surrounded by thousands Russian troops. The Starlink terminals immediately enabled besieged troops to connect to Ukrainian armed forces, journalists, and relatives. Starlink provided world-wide coverage, increased awareness of the situation and quickly won the hearts and minds of the world with the capabilities of the satellite system. A few weeks later, the Ukrainian military began using Starlink to connect drones for attacking Russian forces and Russia publicly stated they were holding Elon Musk personally accountable for the provisioning of Starlink satellites to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
SpaceX continued to donate many more Starlink satellite terminals. European countries sent Starlink some of their own terminals to Ukraine. In the summer, the Ukrainian government started fundraising for the purchase of more terminals. The public began personal reliance on the satellite system, as the trains on Ukrainian Railways began providing internet service.
Starlink now provides vital communications in war torn Ukraine. In September 2022, Ukraine reported they were using over 23,000 Starlink terminals throughout the country. Starlink and SpaceX quickly become familiar terms and Elon Musk had become a hero in the West. How could this wonderful technological relationship turn problematic?
when the bill comes due
There is significant cost for the Starlink service. In October, Elon Musk contacted the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), stating more than 20,000 Starlink terminals had been donated to Ukraine and would cost the company around $100 million by the end of this year. He added that it was not reasonable for SpaceX to fund the Ukrainian Starlink capability without DoD compensation. The request also included funding Starlink service with “tens of millions of dollars a month” for Ukrainian military. A few days later Musk changed course, claiming that SpaceX had withdrawn the DoD request. The tweet from Musk stated, “The hell with it,” and “we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”
In March, a block of 1,300 Starlink terminals were purchased from a British company by Ukraine for combat-related operations. The monthly service fees were not paid, and the Ukrainians turned to Westminster for assistance. A British official said after discussions between the ministries “it was agreed there were higher priority military capabilities.”
SpaceX billing for terminals totaled $2,500 for each of the 1300 terminals per month, or $3.25 million. On October 24, the 1,300 military terminals went dark due to failed payments. The outage was described by some as a “huge problem” for Ukraine’s military. The terminals were subsequently swapped out for other working terminals.
This week Ukrainian deputy prime minister Olga Stefanishyna told reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum the country was looking into alternatives to Starlink. Referencing Musk’s October 3 tweet that suggested Crimea be handed over to Russia, she stated, “We are worrying that the Twitter will become a major source of manipulation because now we’ll see that it has been used by Elon Musk just to test the manipulation limit,” Stefanishyna said working with a billionaire who reverses decisions presents challenges.
Just after the October outage, Musk stated that of the more than 25,000 terminals were now in Ukraine, and fewer than 11,000 were paying for monthly service. Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, DoD Press Secretary stated earlier this month, “We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communication needs with Ukraine and companies like SpaceX and others.” “Others” indicates there are alternatives such as Viasat.