Elon Musk’s involvement in the war in Ukraine is confounding, even to him

The man who’s ruled by Twitter. | Illustration by Laura Normand / The Verge

Apparently, the US Department of Defense had a $145 million check “ready to hand to me, literally,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told Walter Isaacson, according to CNN. “Then Elon succumbed to the bullshit on Twitter.”

Elon Musk had been supplying internet connectivity in Ukraine through SpaceX’s Starlink for free. In October, the company told the US government that it wouldn’t continue the free service. After the story went public, Musk changed his mind: “The hell with it … we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”

Musk plays an outsize role in geopolitics thanks to SpaceX, Ronan Farrow reported for The New Yorker a few weeks ago. Through Starlink, Musk has taken on an outsize role in the Russian-Ukraine war. As the conflict has dragged on, Musk has become uneasy about that role.

“How am I in this war?” Musk asked, according to CNN’s accounting of an excerpt of Isaacson’s book. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”

The CNN report relies on reporting from Isaacson’s new biography without saying how Isaacson did it. For instance, 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,” CNN writes, citing Isaacson’s book. It’s unclear from CNN’s accounting how Isaacson knows this, though perhaps it will be clearer once the book is out.

The report goes on, “As Ukrainian submarine drones strapped with explosives approached the Russian fleet, they ‘lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly,’ Isaacson writes.” CNN does not address how Isaacson confirmed that the drones required internet or how he knows that they washed ashore.

I am a little skeptical about this story because it seems like the kind of thing a journalist covering the war in Ukraine might have reported earlier. It’s possible Isaacson has some sources on the ground there, but without a copy of the book — or CNN noting how Isaacson did his reporting — it’s hard to know. It is a remarkably big claim, and for big claims, I like proof of work. I am much more comfortable with Isaacson directly quoting Shotwell and Musk.

After the CNN story published, Musk denied that Starlink was active in that region at the time. “SpaceX did not deactivate anything,” he said on Twitter. “There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” he went on, without saying which government had made the request. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

The CNN story is excellent publicity for Isaacson’s book — it is the latest of several excerpts that have recently surfaced — and it certainly makes Elon Musk look powerful.

Updated 7:00PM ET: Adds Elon Musk denial that Starlink was active in the region at the time.

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