Elon Musk sends Ukraine a broadside with threat to cut Starlink funds

By Daryna Krasnolutska and Kateryna Choursina | Bloomberg

Elon Musk dramatically upped the ante with Ukraine on Friday with a threat to cut financial support for the Starlink satellite access that has played a pivotal role in the fight against Russia, with the world’s richest man saying he could not keep funding the service and others should step in.

Musk warned his company SpaceX cannot carry the cost of high-speed broadband internet for Ukraine indefinitely. It comes after sharp criticism from Kyiv for Musk’s public comments suggesting the government cede territory in exchange for peace with Russia.

Responding to recent comments from a Ukrainian envoy that he should “f*** off” for his proposals, which included UN-monitored referendums in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, Musk retorted on Twitter on Friday: “We’re just following his recommendation.”

As well as helping Ukraine’s forces on the ground, Starlink terminals have supported infrastructure across the country, and any move to withdraw them could potentially hinder progress in counteroffensives against Russian troops. It would also risk a backlash not just from Ukraine but also its allies who have provided financial and military support for months without conditions.

There was no indication that Musk was intending immediate action to withdraw Starlink from Ukraine. SpaceX “is not asking to recoup past expenses” on Starlink services in Ukraine, he said in another post, but it cannot sustain the financial aid or send thousands more terminals to Ukraine.

Starlink terminals in Ukraine are using data as much as 100 times the amount of typical households, Musk added. A week ago he tweeted that Starlink in Ukraine had cost SpaceX $80 million, which would likely surpass $100 million by the end of the year. Musk’s net worth is $209.2 billion, according to Bloomberg data.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, has said previously the country is getting Starlink terminals free of charge, although he added there might be a different arrangement between Musk and the US Agency for International Development and European entities which provided Starlinks to Ukraine.

CNN reported on Thursday that SpaceX warned the Pentagon in September it may no longer partially fund Starlink in Ukraine unless the US military provides tens of millions of dollars of support per month. A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the CNN report.

“The Department continues to work with industry to explore solutions for Ukraine’s armed forces as they repel Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression,” Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said in a statement that did not address whether a letter was received. “We do not have anything else to add at this time.”

There was no immediate comment from the Ukraine president’s office or the digitalization ministry.

Ukraine has 20,000 Starlink terminals, provided evenly by USAID, Poland, the European Union and private companies, according to an Oct. 5 report from state-run news agency Ukrinform that cited Ministry of Digitalization data.

Poland purchased 11,700 Starlink terminals for Ukraine, including 5,000 acquired by state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen SA, according to Janusz Cieszynski, the government official in charge of cybersecurity.

“SpaceX promised to cover the service cost for the terminals purchased by Orlen,” he said by phone. The Polish government, meanwhile, is “covering the full cost of service” for each terminal it bought “amounting to around $50 monthly” per device.

Musk angered Ukrainians — from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy down — with his recent suggestion that Ukraine should seek a negotiated solution to the invasion by Russia and cede Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, for good.

Musk also launched a Twitter poll asking citizens of recently annexed occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea to decide if they want to live in Russia or Ukraine, days after Ukraine, Europe and the US denounced the annexation moves of President Vladimir Putin.

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At the time, Ukraine’s top diplomat in Germany, Andrij Melnyk, didn’t mince words in his response to Musk’s suggestion. In a further tweet, Melnyk had a dig at Musk’s Tesla vehicles.

On Friday, Musk responded to Melnyk’s remarks.

Ian Bremmer, head of political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a note to clients this week that Musk told him about speaking recently with Putin.

Bremmer said that conversation came before Musk posted his tweets urging Ukraine to find a negotiated solution to the war. Both Musk and the Kremlin subsequently denied he had spoken with Putin this year.