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SpaceX says it blocked Ukraine from using Starlink with military drones

A Starlink antenna sitting on the ground, with patches of snow around it.
Enlarge / A Starlink terminal used by Ukrainian servicemen in Bakhmut on February 1, 2023.

Getty Images | Yasuyoshi Chiba

SpaceX took steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using Starlink satellite Internet with drones because the service was never intended to be “weaponized,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said at an FAA space transportation conference Wednesday.

“Using Starlink with drones went beyond the scope of an agreement SpaceX has with the Ukrainian government, Shotwell said, adding that the contract was intended for humanitarian purposes such as providing broadband Internet to hospitals, banks, and families affected by Russia’s invasion,” Reuters reported.

Shotwell said, “We were really pleased to be able to provide Ukraine connectivity and help them in their fight for freedom. It was never intended to be weaponized. However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” according to the Associated Press.

Starlink’s terms of service specifically address this, saying it is “not designed or intended for use with or in offensive or defensive weaponry or other comparable end-uses.” SpaceX knows “the military is using them for comms, and that’s OK,” Shotwell reportedly said. “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”

Shotwell declined to say exactly how SpaceX prevented Ukraine from using Starlink with drones. “There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that… there are things that we can do and have done,” she said, according to Reuters.

Ukraine officials express anger, puzzlement

SpaceX came to Ukraine’s aid after Russia invaded the country in February 2022. Reports in March said Starlink broadband connections helped the Ukraine military’s elite drone unit target and destroy Russian tanks and other “priority targets.”

Shotwell’s comments expanded on a recent statement by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. In a tweet on January 31, Musk wrote that “SpaceX Starlink has become the connectivity backbone of Ukraine all the way up to the front lines… However, we are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.” Musk’s comment came after a TV host on a Russian state-controlled channel called Musk “a war criminal.”

After Shotwell’s comments, a Ukraine official criticized SpaceX for restricting Starlink’s use by the military. Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote in a tweet yesterday that companies are either on the side of Ukraine and “the right to freedom and don’t seek ways to do harm” or on the side of Russia “and its ‘right’ to kill and seize territories. SpaceX (Starlink) and Mrs. Shotwell should choose a specific option.”

One “Ukrainian military official called Shotwell’s statements ‘strange’ given the well-established fact of the country’s use of Starlink as a combat tool,” the AP wrote.

Starlink has been useful to Ukraine in multiple ways, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, said in a statement quoted by news outlets. There are “no problems with the operation of Starlink uplink terminals in Ukraine,” and Musk is “one of the biggest private donors of our future victory,” he said.

“Starlinks help save thousands of lives daily,” Fedorov also said. “The energy infrastructure continues to work due to Starlinks. Doctors perform complex surgeries thanks to the connection that Starlinks provide.”

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