As is often the case with Elon Musk, it started with a tweet. On February 26, two days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted at the richest man in the world.
“While your rockets are successfully landing from space—Russian rockets are attacking Ukrainian civilians!” Fedorov wrote. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations,” he added.
Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites deployed relatively close to the Earth’s surface by a series of rockets since mid-2019 by parent company SpaceX. The company’s online services are available to individuals, businesses and even airlines, with costs starting at $110 per month. The hardware used to connect to them, small satellite dishes the company calls terminals, are priced at $599 and up. Starlink’s satellites operate in low-Earth orbit (LEO) – within 1,200 miles of the Earth’s surface – much closer than the geosynchronous satellites deployed by rival companies that provide Internet connectivity. That means it takes less time for data to travel from terminals on the ground to satellites in orbit and back.
Musk responded to Fedorov’s tweet the same day, informing him that Starlink’s service is “now active in Ukraine,” indicating that its satellites will begin beaming internet to the country, and promising to send more terminals. For more than eight months, Starlink has played a vital role in keeping Ukraine’s military and citizens online as the war continues to rage and Russia targets Ukraine’s telecommunications and electrical infrastructure.
“It was the beginning of a great story, because Starlink technologies changed this war,” Fedorov told an audience at the Internet Summit in Lisbon in early November. The satellite internet service has not only kept Ukrainian citizens and businesses online, but has also been critical to the war effort, helping troops communicate with each other on the battlefield and even enabling drones and weapons systems to remain operational.
But the centrality of Starlink to Ukraine’s military effort raises the question of why the US government has not made this service available when it has given Ukraine more than $20 billion so far in military and humanitarian aid. Is Ukraine’s reliance on one company—effectively one man—to stay online in the midst of war ultimately a good thing?
Starlink has many advantages over other communications systems beyond just the low-orbit satellites. Its terminals are also smaller and easier to configure than the typical satellite dish required to connect.
“They’re about the size of an average pizza box,” said Andrew Cavalier, an analyst at technology intelligence firm ABI Research, which focuses on satellite communications and wireless networks. This makes them easier to deploy in a wartime environment, but also, he said, “having smaller terminals means, logistically speaking, more terminals, better coverage between ground and air.”
There are companies working on similar LEO communications, including UK-based OneWeb and Amazon’s Project Kuiper (banked by Musk’s fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese firms GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But those companies are still in various stages of starting commercial operations, Cavalier said, giving Musk and Starlink an important head start that its use in the Russia-Ukraine war will only solidify.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said that Starlink played a crucial role in helping Ukraine mount its defense against the Russian invasion, especially in the early days of the war. “Our government was able to function because I had Starlink over my head,” she said. “This was a turning point in our survival.”
But Musk’s Ukrainian internet isn’t all charity. According to many reports, Starlink’s operations in Ukraine were at least partially paid for by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland. A spokesman for the Polish government confirmed that Poland paid about $5.9 million for Starlink services, with support from Polish state-owned enterprises.
Washington has already paid for a small part of the Starlink terminals in Ukraine. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1,508 terminals in March for a total of $3 million, according to a USAID spokesperson. The agency also delivered an additional 3,667 terminals that SpaceX donated, with the company paying for internet service for all terminals.
“USAID purchased Starlink terminals, but did not pay for Starlink service,” the spokesperson said. “Like many mobile network markets, the most important cost factor is not the device itself, but the service that SpaceX offers for free for all devices.”
SpaceX, the US Defense Department and the UK Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for further comment on funding for Starlink. Moss tweeted in mid-October that less than half of the 25,300 Starlink terminals in Ukraine paid for the service.
But concerns remain about putting all of Ukraine’s wartime communications needs into a single, mercurial basket; sudden cutoff could be devastating. This happened at the end of October, when 1,300 Starlink terminals went offline, reportedly due to a lack of funding. The Ukrainian military suffered a communications blackout as a result, just weeks after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it could no longer continue to fund Ukraine’s satellite services and asking the Pentagon to foot the bill.
Musk later walked back those claims, tweeting that Starlink “continues to fund Ukraine … for free” and later that SpaceX had “withdrew its request for funding,” although negotiations between the company and the U.S. government reportedly continued.
Stefanishyna, speaking to reporters at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada on November 19, also said Musk had confirmed to his government that he would continue funding Starlink in Ukraine. “We have Elon Musk’s Twitter guarantee when he confirmed that he is funding [Starlink], and he spoke with our minister about digital transformation. So we consider it a deal,” she said.
But Stefanishyna also expressed doubts about how committed the billionaire tycoon was to honoring those deals, given his penchant for vacillating between new business ventures and going back on major deals in the past. She said that Ukraine plans to complement Starlink with other systems, in case Musk also withdraws from this agreement.
“Given this huge instability in the position of the CEO of SpaceX from willingness and then to unwillingness to continue financial support, we are doing contingency planning for ourselves,” she said. Satellite companies operating from geosynchronous orbit could potentially serve Ukraine (one company, Viasat, says it already supports the country by connecting refugees in neighboring Slovakia), but setting up and maintaining the infrastructure to provide those connections would likely be more onerous than the Starlink experience.
“From a business perspective, what Starlink has is unique in the market right now,” said Andrew Metrick, a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, adding that US military communications are typically built and designed to be more specific. purposes and thus have a narrower applicability.
“The US military will have requirements and needs that are different than a purely civilian application,” he said in an email. “Starlink is kind of general purpose. … It’s easier for someone like Ukraine to use—it’s up there, it’s already a commercial product, and so it’s easier,” he added.
However, having more options is worth the heavy lifting.
“From [Ukraine’s] standpoint, diversifying their network infrastructure is probably a better idea … just because if Elon Musk decides he no longer wants to provide connectivity on a whim, they’re completely blacked out,” Cavalier said.
Although Musk has a higher profile than most executives — especially after his acquisition of Twitter — the involvement of private companies in military conflicts is not new, nor are battles over who will pay for those services. But the Pentagon usually deals with traditional military contractors, not eccentric billionaires floating Russian talking points in the middle of Ukraine’s existential struggle.
“It’s not unheard of for other contractors to have friction with the U.S. government,” Metrick said. The difference here is that Musk is not “the CEO of a more traditional military contractor.”
And Starlink fought in a unique way, too.
“We often go to the commercial sector to get additional access to space transportation. We’ve done that in literally every significant conflict,” said retired Adm. Michael Rogers, the former head of US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency. “What made this unusual was, in this case, the commercial supplier directly entered the field.”
The US government has wireless communications capabilities, both through its own satellites and through partnerships with prominent commercial providers including Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat, and Knight Sky. Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Nov. 1 that the department is in talks with “SpaceX and others” about Ukraine’s satellite Internet requirements but declined to share further details.
But the US, unlike SpaceX, could offer Ukraine other things it needs beyond broadband — like anti-tank missiles or long-range artillery.
“It’s not a question to me if it’s a lack of alternatives—rather in a way to me it reflects the situation,” Rogers said. “If you look at the support provided by the United States, meaningful communications capability was not, I believe, one of the initial core areas where the United States provided additional support.”
Starlink stepping in to fill the gap when it did may have presented the path of least resistance for all parties involved, given how much strain the conflict has placed on US and NATO military supplies. The company’s involvement may have allowed the United States to provide other types of military aid (of which satellite communications only made up a small fraction) “without committing resources that are very finite that we have a high demand for in our own military,” Rogers said. added
The big question now is what happens next. Rogers said the immediate focus for the U.S. and Ukrainian governments remains simply maintaining Ukraine’s access to Starlink service, but added that the current situation will likely also spark conversations about how to make a full-spectrum military procurement process predictable and sustainable in the future.
“The commercial sector is developing these amazing capabilities that have historically been in the domain mostly of governments but are now commercially available to any user – commercial or government – if you’re willing to pay for it,” he said. “So the government has to figure out how to create mechanisms so that they can very quickly bring that kind of capability online when they need it and how to sustain it over time.”
Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.