25 November 2022 10: 00
Headings: Opinions News Policy

Dependence on Starlink could pose a threat to Ukraine

In the United States and Ukraine, they fear that Elon Musk can change his decision to provide Starlink at any time, which could negatively affect the course of the war, but there is actually no alternative.

Rishi Iyengar
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Dependence on Starlink could pose a threat to Ukraine

Ukraine's dependence on the Starlink service may pose certain threats to it, since its functioning depends on external and unstable funding. About it пишет foreign policy columnist Rishi Iyengar.

The opinion of the author may not coincide with the opinion of the editors.

As is often the case with Elon Musk, it all started with a tweet. On February 26, two days after the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Mikhail Fedorov tweeted to the richest man in the world: “While your missiles are successfully landing from space, Russian missiles are attacking the civilian population of Ukraine! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations.”.

Musk responded to Fedorov's tweet the same day, telling him that the Starlink service "now active in Ukraine", indicating that his satellites will begin transmitting the Internet to the country, and promised to send more terminals. More than eight months later, Starlink has played a vital role in keeping the Ukrainian military and citizens connected online.

There are companies working on similar LEO communications, including Britain's OneWeb and Amazon Project Kuiper (funded by Musk's billionaire colleague Jeff Bezos), as well as Chinese firms GalaxySpace and China SatNet. But these firms are still in various stages of commercial launch, which gives Musk and Starlink a major advantage.

Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Olga Stefanishina said Starlink played a critical role in helping Ukraine defend itself against a Russian invasion, especially in the early days of the war. «Our government was able to work because I had Starlink over my head.», - she said. - "It was a turning point in our survival".

But the Ukrainian Internet Mask is not only charity. According to numerous reports, activities Starlink in Ukraine is partially paid for by the US, UK and Poland. The representative of the Polish government confirmed that Poland paid about $ 5,9 million for Starlink services supported by Polish state-owned enterprises. In March, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) purchased 1508 terminals for a total of 3 million. The agency also delivered an additional 3667 terminals donated to SpaceX, with the company paying for internet services for all of the terminals.

SpaceX, the US Department of Defense and the UK Department of Defense did not respond to requests for additional comment regarding Starlink funding. In mid-October, Musk tweeted that less than half of the 25300 Starlink terminals in Ukraine pay for the service.

Sudden shutdown of the system can be devastating. It happened at the end of October when 1300 Starlink terminals went offline, reportedly due to a lack of funding. As a result the Ukrainian military had a communication failure just weeks after SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon saying it could no longer continue funding Ukraine's satellite services and asking the Pentagon to pay the bill.

Musk later retracted those claims, tweeting that Starlink “will continue to finance Ukraine… free of charge”, and subsequently reported that SpaceX "withdrew its request for funding".

Stefanyshina expressed doubts about how committed the billionaire tycoon was to executing these deals, given his tendency to fluctuate suddenly between new business ventures and back out of big deals in the past. She said Ukraine plans to supplement Starlink with other systems in case Musk pulls out of the deal as well.

However, having more options can be worth the hard work. The US government has wireless connectivity options both through its own satellites and through partnerships with well-known commercial providers, including Inmarsat, Intelsat, Viasat and Knight Sky. General Patrick Ryder announced on November 1 that the department was negotiating with "SpaceX and others" about Ukraine's needs for satellite internet, but declined to share details.

Now the big question is what will happen next. General Michael Rogers said that the top priority for the governments of the United States and Ukraine remains simple maintenance of Ukraine's access to the Starlink service, but added that the current situation likely also leads to talk about how to make the full spectrum military procurement process predictable and sustainable going forward.

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