KYIV, Ukraine — Elon Musk said Friday that his space company could not continue funding the Starlink satellite service that has kept Ukraine and its military online during the war, sparking an uproar as he suggested he was pulling free internet after a Ukrainian ambassador insulted him on Twitter.
Musk, the world’s richest man by Bloomberg estimates, tweeted from the United States that his company SpaceX does not want reimbursement for its past expenses in helping Ukraine. But, he wrote, it “also cannot fund the existing system indefinitely and send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100X greater than typical households. This is unreasonable.”
He also appeared to taunt Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, who had some choice words last week after Musk tweeted a proposal to end the war in Ukraine that would favor Russia. “F--- off is my very diplomatic reply to you,” Melnyk said at the time.
“We’re just following his recommendation,” Musk tweeted Friday. The ambassador declined to comment, while his media representative told The Washington Post that Melnyk’s previous statement had been a specific response to the peace proposal.
While SpaceX at points has portrayed Starlink service in Ukraine as an entirely charitable venture, it has not, in fact, covered the entire cost. The Post reported in April that the U.S. government had paid millions to SpaceX for equipment and transportation costs. The company has suggested in recent weeks that the Pentagon cover significant costs going forward, a development first reported by CNN late Thursday.
A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sounded a conciliatory note Friday and expressed confidence that a deal would be reached to maintain service.
“Like it or not,” adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted, Musk “helped us survive the most critical moments of war.” Podolyak added that Ukraine “will find a solution to keep Starlink working. We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations.”
Starlink, a unit of SpaceX, uses terminals equipped with antennas that are usually mounted on roofs to access the internet via satellite in rural or disconnected areas.
Ukrainian forces have used it to live-stream drone feeds, correct artillery fire and contact home since Ukraine faced the threat of internet outages from Russian strikes and cyberattacks. One Ukrainian commander said Friday that “fighting without Starlink service at the front line is like fighting without a gun.”
The White House referred questions to the Pentagon, which acknowledged that talks with SpaceX “about this and other topics” are ongoing.
Senior U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, stressed Starlink’s importance to Ukraine’s battlefield command-and-control operations and in enabling its recent military successes.
“One of the first things you try to do in a fight,” one military official said, “is reduce your opponent’s ability to communicate. Starlink has proven exceptionally effective on the battlefield because it has allowed the Ukrainians multiple connections.”
A Defense Department spokeswoman, Sabrina Singh, told reporters Friday that the Pentagon recognizes the advantages that satellite communication provides and is actively assessing options to keep those capabilities running for Ukrainian forces.
“There are certainly other satcom capabilities that exist out there,” Singh said. “I’m not going to show our hand right now on exactly what those are or who we’re talking to.”
A second senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said that there is no system comparable to Starlink and that the cost is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next year. This person had sharp words for Musk, saying he “dangles hope over the heads of millions, then sticks the DoD with the bill for a system no one asked for but now so many depend on.”
“Elon’s gonna Elon,” the official added.
Last week, Musk offered to move ahead with a deal to buy Twitter several months after seeking to back out. From tweets about Taiwan to the rap star Ye (previously known as Kanye West), his remarks have raised alarm about what he could do with the social media platform if he comes to own it.
Musk tweeted last month that he would ask for an exemption to sanctions against Iran to allow Starlink to assist a Biden administration effort to circumvent Tehran’s attempt to shut down the internet amid nationwide protests against the clerical regime. The U.S. Treasury Department had invited such applications from the private technology sector.
Musk’s Twitter diplomacy came under intense scrutiny this month when the billionaire announced his peace proposal, a four-point plan that would help the Kremlin lock in territorial gains while having Ukraine forgo its claim to Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.
In a more diplomatic jab at Musk’s peacemaking attempt, Zelensky tweeted a poll asking his followers which Elon Musk they preferred: “One who supports Ukraine” or “One who supports Russia.” There were more than 2.4 million replies, with 78.8 percent choosing a Musk who supports Ukraine.
Musk said Friday that the Starlink operation in Ukraine had cost SpaceX $80 million and that the price would reach $100 million by the end of the year, including the expense of providing terminals, maintaining satellites and ground stations, and other items. “We’ve also had to defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder,” he wrote.
The Ukrainian military has become dependent on Starlink to quickly share information with senior commanders. Roman Kovalenko, a company commander in the 72nd Mechanized Brigade fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, said units use radio less now because they’re not as dependable.
The satellite internet is especially helpful for the Ukrainian military’s expanded use of drones. With a stable connection, air reconnaissance units can watch their drone feed, allowing artillery forces to identify targets and correct their fire in real time. Before that, Kovalenko said, infantry soldiers in trenches had to locate the artillery strikes, which was less effective and put them in danger.
“I’d say the effectiveness of our work without Starlink would drop something like 60 percent or more,” Kovalenko said. “And we would have to use more ammunition, which we are now saving.”
He and others said they had experienced some outages near the front line in recent weeks, but one soldier in an air reconnaissance unit called them “insignificant.” A drone unit in the southern Kherson region was able to work only a short distance into recently reclaimed territory before its Starlink stopped working.
After Ukrainian troops recaptured the city of Izyum in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent weeks, residents crowded around a Starlink system that was brought in so they could get some connection until the cellular network was restored there.
In his brigade, Kovalenko said, soldiers often visit his position to use his Starlink to connect to the internet and send their families a quick message that they’re alive and well.
“I hope even if the situation would not be resolved officially, our volunteers would fundraise the money needed to pay for this service,” he said. “We need Starlink badly.”
The standoff comes as Ukraine’s battlefield gains coupled with Russian military failures and the extensive international sanctions imposed on Moscow have left the Kremlin in a challenging position as the war heads into winter. The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Russian commanders have been unable to quickly replace munitions while losing more than 6,000 pieces of equipment since the invasion began in late February.
Such setbacks have forced Moscow to turn to countries like Iran and North Korea for drones, artillery munitions and rockets, according to a slide deck from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was shared with The Post. Russia’s defense industry, it says, also relies heavily on imported microelectronics, engines, and optical and thermal imaging technology.
“Not only have we been able to impose costs on the Kremlin for its actions but our economic restrictions placed on the Russian military-industrial complex have had a direct effect on the battlefield,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said Friday. “Together, our collective actions have rendered the Russian military-industrial complex unable to produce and maintain critical equipment for operations in Ukraine.”
Francis reported from London and Lamothe from Washington. Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima in Washington and Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv contributed to this report.