One evening in September 2022, a group of Ukrainian sea drones sped out into the Black Sea, heading for Russian-occupied Crimea. Their designers—engineers who had been doing other things until the current war began—had carefully targeted the fast, remote-controlled, explosive-packed vessels to hit ships anchored in Sebastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. But the drones ran into a problem: Starlink, the satellite-communications system that Ukraine had been using since Russia invaded early last year, unexpectedly wasn’t working. This was a surprise to the engineers. Several people, in Ukraine and elsewhere, frantically called and texted Elon Musk, the owner of Starlink, to persuade him to enable the system.
Musk, in turn, called Walter Isaacson, his biographer, and told him there was a “non-trivial possibility” that the sea-drone attack could lead to a nuclear war. According to Isaacson, Musk had recently spoken with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, who had warned him explicitly that any attack on Crimea would lead to nuclear conflict. Musk implied to several other people (though he later denied it) that he had been speaking with President Vladimir Putin around that time as well.
These are details that you may have already heard. Many of them were first reported in May, by Oliver Carroll at The Economist. Since then, The New Yorker has also described how Ukrainian soldiers abruptly lost their access to Starlink on the battlefield during a different set of land operations. Isaacson’s version of the maritime story implies that all of the drones in the operation washed ashore that evening. But recently in Ukraine, I met some of the engineers who helped design the unmanned sea vehicles, including an engineer who was involved in the first attempt to hit Russian ships in Sebastopol. They told me that not all of the drones involved were lost. Some returned back to base, undamaged.
Here is the part you might not have heard, or not registered: The same team launched a similar attack again a few weeks later. On October 29, a fleet of guided sea drones packed with explosives did reach Sebastopol harbor, using a different communications system. They did hit their targets. They put one Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, out of commission. The team believes that they damaged at least one submarine and at least two other boats as well.
And then? Nuclear war did not follow. Despite Musk’s fears, in other words—fears put into his head by the Russian ambassador, or perhaps by Putin himself—World War III did not erupt as a result of this successful attack on a Crimean port. Instead, the Russian naval commanders were spooked by the attack, so much so that they stuck close to Sebastopol harbor over the following weeks. [Continue reading…]