How the U.S. government came to rely on Elon Musk — and is now struggling to rein him in

How the U.S. government came to rely on Elon Musk — and is now struggling to rein him in

Ronan Farrow writes:

Last October, Colin Kahl, then the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, sat in a hotel in Paris and prepared to make a call to avert disaster in Ukraine. A staffer handed him an iPhone—in part to avoid inviting an onslaught of late-night texts and colorful emojis on Kahl’s own phone. Kahl had returned to his room, with its heavy drapery and distant view of the Eiffel Tower, after a day of meetings with officials from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. A senior defense official told me that Kahl was surprised by whom he was about to contact: “He was, like, ‘Why am I calling Elon Musk?’ ”

The reason soon became apparent. “Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had on this issue,” Kahl told me. SpaceX, Musk’s space-exploration company, had for months been providing Internet access across Ukraine, allowing the country’s forces to plan attacks and to defend themselves. But, in recent days, the forces had found their connectivity severed as they entered territory contested by Russia. More alarmingly, SpaceX had recently given the Pentagon an ultimatum: if it didn’t assume the cost of providing service in Ukraine, which the company calculated at some four hundred million dollars annually, it would cut off access. “We started to get a little panicked,” the senior defense official, one of four who described the standoff to me, recalled. Musk “could turn it off at any given moment. And that would have real operational impact for the Ukrainians.”

Musk had become involved in the war in Ukraine soon after Russia invaded, in February, 2022. Along with conventional assaults, the Kremlin was conducting cyberattacks against Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. Ukrainian officials and a loose coalition of expatriates in the tech sector, brainstorming in group chats on WhatsApp and Signal, found a potential solution: SpaceX, which manufactures a line of mobile Internet terminals called Starlink. The tripod-mounted dishes, each about the size of a computer display and clad in white plastic reminiscent of the sleek design sensibility of Musk’s Tesla electric cars, connect with a network of satellites. The units have limited range, but in this situation that was an advantage: although a nationwide network of dishes was required, it would be difficult for Russia to completely dismantle Ukrainian connectivity. Of course, Musk could do so. Three people involved in bringing Starlink to Ukraine, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they worried that Musk, if upset, could withdraw his services, told me that they originally overlooked the significance of his personal control. “Nobody thought about it back then,” one of them, a Ukrainian tech executive, told me. “It was all about ‘Let’s fucking go, people are dying.’ ”

In the ensuing months, fund-raising in Silicon Valley’s Ukrainian community, contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development and with European governments, and pro-bono contributions from SpaceX facilitated the transfer of thousands of Starlink units to Ukraine. A soldier in Ukraine’s signal corps who was responsible for maintaining Starlink access on the front lines, and who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mykola, told me, “It’s the essential backbone of communication on the battlefield.”

Initially, Musk showed unreserved support for the Ukrainian cause, responding encouragingly as Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian minister for digital transformation, tweeted pictures of equipment in the field. But, as the war ground on, SpaceX began to balk at the cost. “We are not in a position to further donate terminals to Ukraine, or fund the existing terminals for an indefinite period of time,” SpaceX’s director of government sales told the Pentagon in a letter, last September. (CNBC recently valued SpaceX at nearly a hundred and fifty billion dollars. Forbes estimated Musk’s personal net worth at two hundred and twenty billion dollars, making him the world’s richest man.)

Musk was also growing increasingly uneasy with the fact that his technology was being used for warfare. That month, at a conference in Aspen attended by business and political figures, Musk even appeared to express support for Vladimir Putin. “He was onstage, and he said, ‘We should be negotiating. Putin wants peace—we should be negotiating peace with Putin,’ ” Reid Hoffman, who helped start PayPal with Musk, recalled. Musk seemed, he said, to have “bought what Putin was selling, hook, line, and sinker.” A week later, Musk tweeted a proposal for his own peace plan, which called for new referendums to redraw the borders of Ukraine, and granted Russia control of Crimea, the semi-autonomous peninsula recognized by most nations, including the United States, as Ukrainian territory. In later tweets, Musk portrayed as inevitable an outcome favoring Russia and attached maps highlighting eastern Ukrainian territories, some of which, he argued, “prefer Russia.” Musk also polled his Twitter followers about the plan. Millions responded, with about sixty per cent rejecting the proposal. (Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, tweeted his own poll, asking users whether they preferred the Elon Musk who supported Ukraine or the one who now seemed to back Russia. The former won, though Zelensky’s poll had a smaller turnout: Musk has more than twenty times as many followers.)

By then, Musk’s sympathies appeared to be manifesting on the battlefield. One day, Ukrainian forces advancing into contested areas in the south found themselves suddenly unable to communicate. “We were very close to the front line,” Mykola, the signal-corps soldier, told me. “We crossed this border and the Starlink stopped working.” The consequences were immediate. “Communications became dead, units were isolated. When you’re on offense, especially for commanders, you need a constant stream of information from battalions. Commanders had to drive to the battlefield to be in radio range, risking themselves,” Mykola said. “It was chaos.” Ukrainian expats who had raised funds for the Starlink units began receiving frantic calls. The tech executive recalls a Ukrainian military official telling him, “We need Elon now.” “How now?” he replied. “Like fucking now,” the official said. “People are dying.” Another Ukrainian involved told me that he was “awoken by a dozen calls saying they’d lost connectivity and had to retreat.” The Financial Times reported that outages affected units in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. American and Ukrainian officials told me they believed that SpaceX had cut the connectivity via geofencing, cordoning off areas of access. [Continue reading…]

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