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What just happened? The once-rosy relationship between Starlink and Ukraine has become even more tense after the country's military intelligence accused Russian forces in occupied territories of using the company's terminals. Starlink's CEO and founder, Elon Musk, has denied the claim.
The Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Agency (GUR) says it has proof that Russia's 83rd Assault Brigade was using SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service in Klishchiivka and Andriivka, two towns in the partially occupied Donetsk region.
This proof consists of a 12-second audio clip that the agency says is an intercepted exchange of two Russian soldiers discussing setting up the Starlink terminals. "Starlink works, there is internet," one says.
– Defence intelligence of Ukraine (@DI_Ukraine) February 11, 2024
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"Cases of the Russian occupiers' use of the given devices have been registered. It is beginning to take on a systemic nature," Andriy Yusov, GUR spokesperson, told The Guardian.
Both Starlink and Musk have addressed the reports. Musk wrote in an X post that allegations SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia were categorically false. "To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia," he said.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2024
A number of false news reports claim that SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia.
This is categorically false.
To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia.
Starlink's X post went into more detail. It noted that SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian government or its military and that the service is not active in Russia, meaning it will not work in the country. It does not operate in Dubai, either, and it has not authorized any third-party intermediaries, resellers or distributors of any kind to sell Starlink in the country. "If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorized party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed."
– Starlink (@Starlink) February 8, 2024
SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military.
Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country. SpaceX has never sold or marketed Starlink in Russia, nor has it shipped equipment to locations in Russia. If…
Neither message flat-out denies that the Russian military has somehow obtained Starlink terminals and is using them in Ukraine.
It's been theorized that Russian troops could be spoofing the Starlink terminals' locations to circumvent their geofencing and make them appear in allowed locations. Alternatively, the terminals might be used in locations that SpaceX has cleared in order to help the Ukrainians.
SpaceX has supplied thousands of terminals to Ukraine and kept the service going since the war began, something the country was initially very grateful for and that angered Russia. But Musk warned that the company's funding couldn't continue indefinitely – though he later backtracked and said it would.
The relationship was further strained a year ago when SpaceX limited Ukraine's ability to use the Starlink satellite service for offensive military purposes. The move followed reports that Ukraine had been using Starlink to control drones. There was also a claim in a book that Musk disabled Starlink during a Ukraine attack on Russian ships over fears of nuclear reprisals.
In October 2022, Musk managed to anger the whole of Ukraine with his proposed Russian peace plan, though he did once offer to fight Vladimir Putin in "single combat" for the future of the nation.