Billionaire Elon Musk reportedly restricted Starlink’s internet access in Ukraine several times, which has affected Kyiv’s strategy on the battlefield.

The world’s richest man has denied a request by the Ukrainian military to turn on Starlink near Crimea, Russian-controlled territory, during the ongoing war with Russia, the New York Times has reported, citing people familiar with the situation.

The Tesla CEO has been providing Starlink service to Ukraine since late February 2022, just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion and a cyberattack brought down the country’s internet.

SpaceX’s Starlink makes up the bulk of Earth-orbiting satellites, with more than 4,000 of them in low-Earth orbit.

Musk’s unilateral control over its satellite internet technology, which has been an essential part of Ukraine’s communications since the war, has raised concerns among authorities, according to the report.

In February this year, SpaceX announced that it had taken steps to prevent the Ukrainian military from using Starlink satellite internet service to control drones in the region.

Following the announcement, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said SpaceX had to choose a side in the war against Russia.

The Ukrainian authorities, concerned about excessive reliance on a single technological source, held discussions with other satellite Internet providers. But they recognized that neither rivals Starlink’s reach.

“Starlink is now the blood of our entire communications infrastructure,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital affairs, told NYT.

According to him, this technology allows artillery teams, commanders, and pilots to view drone footage simultaneously while chatting online. According to soldiers, response times from finding a target to reaching it have been reduced from nearly 20 minutes to about a minute.

“The vast number of lives that Starlink has helped save number in the thousands,” Fedorov added. “This is one of the fundamental components of our success.”

Last year, Musk also asked the US to fund his internet services to Ukraine because they couldn’t go through with the deal. The company estimated the cost at nearly $400 million over 12 months, according to a letter from SpaceX reported by CNN.

According to the report, some 1,300 Starlink terminals purchased through a British supplier stopped working last year after the Ukrainian government failed to pay the $2,500 monthly fee for each.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved a Pentagon deal in June to buy 400 to 500 new Starlink terminals and services, which would give the Pentagon control of the Internet signal environment inside Ukraine so that the new devices would carry out “key capabilities and certain missions.”

Alisa Rahaman Sarkar