SpaceX bans Ukraine from using Starlink for drones

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SpaceX has banned Ukraine from using Starlink satellite connectivity for controlling drones and other military purposes.

Drones have proven critical in Ukraine’s defense from Russia’s unprovoked invasion. Starlink, meanwhile, has kept Ukraine connected amid Russia’s targeting of communications infrastructure.

SpaceX was praised in the early days of Russia’s invasion for providing Starlink terminals to Ukraine. Fundraising efforts and donations from other countries have enabled Ukraine to obtain additional terminals.

The use of Starlink by Ukraine has angered the Kremlin. During a UN General Assembly meeting, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Konstantin Vorontsov warned that satellite use “constitutes indirect participation” in the war and that “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

In October, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk signalled he could no longer continue funding Starlink in Ukraine before seemingly reversing his position.

However, the cost of Starlink terminals has increased from $375 to $700 for new Ukrainian customers. The monthly subscription cost has also increased from $60 to $75. It’s unclear whether the cost has also been increased for Ukrainian authorities.

Speaking to Reuters, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company never wants its satellites to be “used for offensive purposes.”

As a wider company, SpaceX has signed numerous contracts with the Pentagon to launch military infrastructure. The US Government reportedly purchased 1,330 Starlink terminals for Ukraine and it’s hard to imagine they did so believing restrictions will be placed on Ukraine’s ability to use them to defend their territory.

“The Ukrainians used [Starlink] unintentionally and not within the framework of any agreement. There are things we can do to limit their ability to do this. There are things we can do and have already done,” Shotwell said.

SpaceX hasn’t said exactly what it’s doing to prevent Ukraine’s defenders from using Starlink for their operations, but it’s seen as ill-timing. Russia is widely expected to launch a renewed offensive in the coming weeks and SpaceX’s clampdown may hamper Ukraine’s defensive efforts.

In his tweet, it’s notable that Musk says “long-range” drone strikes. That may indicate the main concern is about Ukraine using Starlink to conduct drone strikes deeper into Russian territory. That would follow the same logic as why Western leaders have been reluctant to provide very long-range weapons to Ukraine that are beyond defensive.

If that’s the case, it stands to reason the measures that Shotwell alluded to in her comments about preventing Ukraine from using Starlink for offensive purposes could include geofencing. 

However, any form of placing restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Starlink will be seen as appeasing the Kremlin. Musk has already been criticised this week for continuing to amplify Russian misinformation:

Ukraine’s officials don’t appear to have been previously aware of the restrictions around the use of Starlink.

“Companies have to decide, either they are on the side of Ukraine and the right to freedom and don’t seek ways to do harm, or they are on Russia’s side and its ‘right’ to kill and seize territories,” wrote Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

“SpaceX and Mrs Shotwell should choose a specific option.”

(Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash)

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