When war broke out in Ukraine, the country faced threats of cyberattacks and Russian bombing that could have disrupted the internet, making a back-up plan necessary. So the country’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mikhailo Fedorov, tweeted a direct appeal to Musk urging him to send help. Musk replied a few hours later: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals on the way.”
In an interview with the Washington Post on Friday, Fedorov said that Ukraine has already received thousands of antennas from Musk companies and its European allies, which have proven “very effective.”
“The link quality is excellent,” Fedorov said through an interpreter, using a Starlink connection from an undisclosed location. “We are using thousands, in the region of thousands, of stations with new shipments arriving every day.”
Experts say the use of Starlink as a temporary measure for citizens and government to stay connected during an invasion is a major test of the relatively new technology, and it could have wide-ranging ramifications for the future of war. The Internet has become an essential tool to communicate, stay informed, and even operate weapons.
It is also a test of grip. The richest man in the world, whose value is estimated at $232 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, used to turn to Twitter for loud promises and advertisements in the midst of global crises. Already this week, Tesla CEO challenged Putin to a fight and followed that up by vowing he would use it only one hand If Putin is afraid. He told Putin he could Bring a bear.
But this time, Fedorov and some experts say he has arrived. Tesla employees in Europe have reportedly assembled systems to help operate Starlink in Ukraine, and Fedorov said other European countries have sent Starlink equipment from their own supplies.
Musk responded to a request for comment on his and previous efforts with Starlink, telling The Post to offer his compliments “to your puppet master Besuso.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Musk did not respond to a follow-up request specifically about his work with Starlink in Ukraine.
SpaceX declined to comment on its work in Ukraine.
Experts said that the internet outage could be due to a power outage or because fiber-optic cables were cut as a result of the bombing. Starlink technology is used by civilians in attacked areas that have lost internet access, and by government officials. Starlink terminals were also made available to help the country’s tech companies stay online when war forced them to relocate. The Times of London reports that a Ukrainian unit is using Starlink to link its drones to attacking Russian forces.
Starlink has grown rapidly in recent years, outpacing some of its satellite internet competitors by launching more than 1,000 satellites into space. People can buy the service online for $99 a month, plus $499 for equipment, but Starlink cautions that shipping can take six months or longer in some cases.
A person familiar with Starlink’s efforts in Ukraine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said there are more than 5,000 terminals in the country.
However, experts said that even a large Starlink network may not be enough to keep an entire country online and running at full speed. But terminals can serve as a reliable backup while Internet services falter. Fedorov said he and his crew are in discussions with other European leaders and companies about additional satellite and cellular technologies that could help keep Ukrainians online in the event of a larger internet outage.
Tweet embedWhile trying to colonize Mars – Russia is trying to occupy Ukraine! As your missiles land successfully from space – Russian missiles are attacking Ukrainian civilians! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address reasonable Russians to stand up.
– Mikhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) February 26, 2022
Internet flows deteriorated on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and did not fully recover, according to data monitoring services. But since this initial decline, communication has remained fairly stable, with temporary and essentially isolated outages even during heavy Russian bombardment.
“Every day there is an outage, but generally the service comes back,” said Doug Madhuri, director of internet analysis at Kentik, which monitors global data flows.
Even before Fedorov Tweet Musk for helpSpaceX was working on a way to get Starlink to Ukraine. Speaking at Caltech this month, President and COO Gwen Shotwell said the company had been working for several weeks to obtain regulatory approval to allow satellites to communicate in Ukraine.
He said that Fedorov’s agency is working to bring Starlink stations to areas where Internet access has been cut off. The systems were used in some cases to connect people when cellular networks in the country were overloaded.
Fedorov said he wrote to Musk briefly and that the tech billionaire also had a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
There are some concerns that accompany the use of the terminals. Experts say that like all satellite communications during the war, Starlink signals can be used to detect the location of antennas.
While it’s unclear whether Russia can use signals to target attacks, Musk instructed caution on Twitter.
“Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still operating in some parts of Ukraine, so the possibility of it being targeted is high,” he said. He added that users should only operate the device when needed and keep it away from people.
Fedorov said experts had warned that the devices could reveal the locations of Ukrainians to Russian attackers, but so far this hasn’t been a problem. The devices are usually used in “populated areas where there are a lot of civilians anyway”.
He said Russian cyberattacks have not intensified on systems – yet.
“It seems that at the moment they are very busy attacking the websites of our small towns and villages,” Fedorov said. “I think they haven’t reached that stage yet.”
Some Starlink stations near conflict zones were jammed for several hours at a time. Our latest software update goes beyond obfuscation.
I’m curious to know what’s next!
– Elon Musk March 5, 2022
Because Starlink is still relatively new, there is a lot to learn how and if it could be used in conflict areas, defense and aerospace industry experts say.
“The answer may be helpful, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation, pointing out the risks of cyberattacks and what exactly the needs are.
The Russians, like many others, have a technology capable of finding, jamming and sometimes intercepting many types of transmissions. John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said Starlink technology could be a target for these efforts.
“But I think it’s really important for people in Ukraine and areas that don’t have connectivity to communicate, so it’s a matter of understanding the risks and balancing them,” he said.
In Kyiv, a Ukrainian engineer watched Twitter exchanges between Fedorov and Musk and scrambled to reassemble a Starlink station he had bought months earlier. Oleg Kotkov said that he bought a plant only to disassemble and reassemble – as an engineer, he was curious to see how it worked.
But now that Starlink services are enabled in the country, they could actually be useful, he said. He said his normal internet service was still working, but he put the Starlink antenna out of his window and turned it on for testing. The speed was really fast.
“The internet connection is really important here in Ukraine,” Kotkov said. “We get a lot of information from social media channels, from the government and from each other.” Kutkov received so many questions from his Ukrainian colleagues about Starlink that he created a Facebook group to address it. It now has 370 members.
Christian Davenport, Craig Timberg and Joseph Maine contributed to this report.