News

Did Elon Musk Turn Off Starlink Access in Crimea To Disrupt Ukrainian Attack?

Musk's Starlink satellite internet service became crucial to Ukraine's defense after the Russian invasion.

Published Sept. 14, 2023

CEO Elon Musk leaves a US Senate bipartisan Artificial Intelligence (AI) Insight Forum at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 13, 2023. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
CEO Elon Musk leaves a US Senate bipartisan Artificial Intelligence (AI) Insight Forum at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 13, 2023. (Image Via MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sept. 7, 2023, major U.S. news outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post, reported that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had personally ordered access to the company's Starlink satellite internet service "turned off" or "shut down" in Russia-occupied Crimea to disrupt a planned Ukrainian military attack there. The incident took place in 2022.

CNN reported that:

Elon Musk secretly ordered his engineers to turn off his company's Starlink satellite communications network near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet, according to an excerpt adapted from Walter Isaacson's new biography of the eccentric billionaire titled "Elon Musk."

As Ukrainian submarine drones strapped with explosives approached the Russian fleet, they "lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly," Isaacson writes.

Musk's decision, which left Ukrainian officials begging him to turn the satellites back on, was driven by an acute fear that Russia would respond to a Ukrainian attack on Crimea with nuclear weapons, a fear driven home by Musk's conversations with senior Russian officials, according to Isaacson, whose new book is set to be released by Simon & Schuster on September 12.

Citing the above CNN report, The Washington Post wrote:

SpaceX cut off Starlink satellite internet service to Ukrainian submarine drones last year just as they were launching an attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet, according to a new biography of SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

The new details of the previously reported incident underscore how dependent the U.S. government has become on a company that once had to fight in court to become part of the Washington establishment.

The armed submarine drones were poised to attack the Russian fleet, according to a CNN report that cited an excerpt of a forthcoming biography of Musk by Walter Isaacson, a former CNN CEO and Time magazine editor. Instead, according to the book, which goes on sale Tuesday, the drones "lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly."

These reports were based, in turn, on a published excerpt from a then-soon-to-be-released book about Musk by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson, who said he was communicating with Musk in real time as the Crimea drama unfolded, had written:

Throughout the evening and into the night, [Musk] personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast.

However, as Musk objected immediately and Isaacson would clarify soon after, the claim that Musk had ordered Starlink coverage in Crimea "turned off" wasn't entirely accurate. (Both CNN and The Washington Post subsequently corrected their reports.)

Musk responded to the allegations on X (formerly Twitter) in a series of messages in which he claimed the following: (1) Starlink was never activated in the region in the first place, and therefore he never deactivated it, and (2) the Ukrainian government had asked him to activate Starlink "all the way to Sevastopol," the largest city in Crimea, and he refused to do that to avoid escalating the conflict.

(@elonmusk on X)

(@elonmusk on X)

The New York Times interpreted Musk's clarifications as a tacit acknowledgment of his intent, i.e., the disruption of a Ukrainian attack (emphasis ours):

[...] Mr. Musk responded on his social media platform to say that he hadn't disabled the service but had rather refused to comply with an emergency request from Ukrainian officials to enable Starlink connections to Sevastopol on the occupied Crimean peninsula. That was in effect an acknowledgment that he had made the decision to prevent a Ukrainian attack.

In response to Musk's tweets, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tagged the billionaire in a post on X that claimed "civilians, children are being killed" because of the unavailability of Starlink's services.

Isaacson, the biographer, issued his own clarification on Sept. 8, acknowledging that Starlink was not enabled in Crimea in the first place:

To clarify on the Starlink issue: the Ukrainians THOUGHT coverage was enabled all the way to Crimea, but it was not. They asked Musk to enable it for their drone sub attack on the Russian fleet. Musk did not enable it, because he thought, probably correctly, that would cause a major war.

One unanswered question was why Starlink access hadn't been activated in Crimea. During an All-In Summit appearance on Sept. 11, 2023, Musk returned to the topic and stated that Starlink could not operate in Russia-occupied Ukraine because U.S. sanctions forbade it without special permission.

The recording from Musk's speech at the conference was shared on Sept. 13, 2023, on the All-In Podcast YouTube channel:

Musk was now claiming that at the time of the in-question situation, Starlink access around Crimea was not turned on. The reason was because the U.S. had imposed sanctions on Russia, and SpaceX was not allowed to turn on connectivity in Crimea without explicit government approval. Moreover, Musk said, Ukraine didn't give SpaceX any "advance warning or heads up." He said he got urgent calls from the Ukrainian government in the middle of the night saying that he needed to turn on Starlink access in Crimea.

Comparing the situation to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Musk claimed that the Ukrainian government was asking SpaceX to "proactively take part in a major act of war." He said that SpaceX was supporting Ukraine, but the Ukrainian government was not in charge of U.S people or companies, adding "that's not how it works." He added that although he's not U.S. President Joe Biden's biggest fan, if he had received a presidential directive to turn on Starlink connectivity in Crimea, he would have done so, because he does "regard the president as the chief executive officer of the country." But no such requests came through, he said.

We have reached out to the U.S. Department of Treasury for confirmation that the existing U.S. sanctions would prohibit activating Starlink access in Crimea, but as of this writing, we had not received a reply. We also contacted Mykhailo Fedorov, deputy prime minister for innovation, education, science and technology development and minister of digital transformation of Ukraine, and we will update this article if or when we receive responses.

The Book That Prompted CNN's Article

This is the description of "Elon Musk" by Walter Isaacson on publisher Simon & Schuster's website:

From the author of Steve Jobs and other bestselling biographies, this is the astonishingly intimate story of the most fascinating and controversial innovator of our era—a rule-breaking visionary who helped to lead the world into the era of electric vehicles, private space exploration, and artificial intelligence. Oh, and took over Twitter.

The biography, as the description continued, documents two years of encounters between Isaacson and Musk:

For two years, Isaacson shadowed Musk, attended his meetings, walked his factories with him, and spent hours interviewing him, his family, friends, coworkers, and adversaries. The result is the revealing inside story, filled with amazing tales of triumphs and turmoil, that addresses the question: are the demons that drive Musk also what it takes to drive innovation and progress?

Snopes reached out to Isaacson for more details about Musk, Starlink and Crimea. He did not reply.

Sources

Amazon.Com. https://www.amazon.com/Elon-Musk-Walter-Isaacson/dp/1982181281. Accessed 8 Sept. 2023.

Borger, Julian. "Elon Musk Ordered Starlink to Be Turned off during Ukraine Offensive, Book Says." The Guardian, 7 Sept. 2023. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/sep/07/elon-musk-ordered-starlink-turned-off-ukraine-offensive-biography.

Davenport, Christian, and Joseph Menn. "Musk Cut Internet to Ukraine's Military as It Was Attacking Russian Fleet." Washington Post, 8 Sept. 2023. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2023/09/07/ukraine-starlink-musk-biography/.

Elon Musk. 2023. www.simonandschuster.com, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Elon-Musk/Walter-Isaacson/9781982181284.

Lyngaas, Sean. "CNN Exclusive: 'How Am I in This War?': New Musk Biography Offers Fresh Details about the Billionaire's Ukraine Dilemma | CNN Politics." CNN, 7 Sept. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/07/politics/elon-musk-biography-walter-isaacson-ukraine-starlink/index.html.

"Opinion | 'How Am I in This War?': The Untold Story of Elon Musk's Support for Ukraine." Washington Post, 7 Sept. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/09/07/elon-musk-starlink-ukraine-russia-invasion/.

Aleksandra Wrona is a reporting fellow for Snopes, based in the Warsaw area.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.