The Silicon Valley oligarch, perhaps the richest man in the world, extends a hand to his fellow oligarch, the man who has his finger on Russia’s nuclear button. They share a secret about the foolishness of the masses, and take action to save us all from ourselves. Thanks to the two of them, the world is saved from Armageddon.
Not the precis of a favourably reviewed work of dystopian fiction but a scenario presented as though it happened, in a biography of Elon Musk and its press campaign. Although neither Musk nor his biographer can get the story straight, it is true that the multibillionaire CEO of X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) refused to extend the coverage of his Starlink satellite communications for the Ukrainian armed forces last autumn.
Musk did so because Russians (sometimes he says Putin) told him that a Ukrainian attack on part of Ukraine’s own territory (the Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russia) would lead to a Russian nuclear response. This was a lie. Ukraine has carried out dozens of operations in Crimea, some of them quite spectacular. It seems absurd to have to write this sentence, but none of them led to nuclear war. The net effect of such operations was de-escalatory, as such attacks reduce Russia’s capability to attack Ukrainian territory.
Russia’s ceaseless nuclear threats are a psychological operation to frighten Ukraine and its allies into surrender
Since we all know this from abundant experience, no one should have gone to press with the claim that Musk prevented nuclear war by stopping a Ukrainian attack on a Russian ship docked in Ukrainian territory. As if to punctuate the point, Ukraine has attacked several Russian ships in the past few days. Russia has retaliated by promising to repair them. The Russians know that they are in a war and that the other side is allowed to fight back.
After 19 months of war, most observers have understood that Russia’s ceaseless nuclear threats are a psychological operation, an attempt to frighten Ukraine and its allies into surrender. The claim that Musk prevented escalation repackages Russian propaganda, and helps it to find a new audience. It provides a platform to Russian lies meant to demoralise.
In fact, Musk’s actions have increased the chances of nuclear war. There is always some risk, which Russia increased by initiating a major conflict. Ukraine then decreased the probability by ignoring Russian nuclear blackmail. If Ukraine had surrendered, then the lesson for the rest of the world would have been clear: you must have nuclear weapons, either to blackmail or to avoid being blackmailed. The Ukrainians took this decision under stress, since if a weapon were detonated it would be on their territory. Musk, who was in no danger of any kind, chose instead to give in to the nuclear blackmail, thereby encouraging more of it. [Continue reading…]