Why Is Ukraine Lashing Out at Elon Musk?

If one is looking for the place where real wars meet the culture wars, X marks the spot.

AP/Benjamin Fanjoy, file
Elon Musk at San Francisco on January 24, 2023. AP/Benjamin Fanjoy, file

When it comes to the place where real wars meet the culture wars, X marks the spot.  The Elon Musk-owned social media platform formerly known as Twitter has become ground zero in a battle that pits the billionaire entrepreneur against Ukraine’s core communications unit. 

The brouhaha this time started with the Starlink satellite internet system made by the aerospace company SpaceX, also owned by Mr. Musk. At one point Mr. Musk stopped providing Starlink terminals to Ukraine, saying it was out of concerns over nuclear escalation — but Ukraine doesn’t buy that argument.

What set off the latest round from Kyiv is a statement Mr. Musk is said to have made about Starlink’s intended purpose. In a book about Mr. Musk that is to be released next week, biographer Walter Isaacson writes that the entrepreneur said, “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”

That prompted President Zelensky’s chief communications advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, to write on X, “Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities.” 

Did he, though? It is true that Mr. Musk cut off Starlink satellite access over the Russian-occupied Crimea in 2022 to impede Ukraine’s efforts to strike Russia’s naval assets there. Yet that decision does not mean he “allowed” Russia to fire missiles.

Anyone who has followed the career path of President Putin or the course of his invasion of Ukraine knows that absent a swift Ukrainian victory, or a ceasefire for that matter, he would have found a way to launch attacks regardless of whether Kyiv had Starlink in its toolkit.

What rankles Ukraine more than a snippet from a forthcoming book is Mr. Musk’s tack on the war in general. As the Sun has reported, the tech baron has floated some ideas about the war that position him as an outlier.

Mr. Musk suggested last year a plan that would acknowledge Russian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula and confer on Ukraine status as a neutral country. Russia seized and subsequently annexed Crimea in 2014. 

After Mr. Musk made that audacious suggestion on the social platform then called Twitter, Mr. Zelensky replied — also using the platform — “Which Elon Musk do you like more? One who supports Ukraine” or “supports Russia”?

Mr. Podolyak, it appears, has not forgotten that feud. He also tweeted about “the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego” — referring to Mr. Musk’s, not Mr. Putin’s — and said the result of the decision to cut Starlink is that “civilians, children are being killed.”

Those are fighting words. 

The problem is that there is a real war taking place. On Friday alone, a Russian missile attack on Mr. Zelensky’s hometown killed a policeman and wounded at least 73 people, according to Ukrainian officials. Another attack in the southern Kherson region killed three people.

At the same time, Russia is conducting sham elections in the areas of southern Ukraine it occupies. That prompted the Council of Europe to condemn Moscow’s move as “a flagrant violation of international law, which Russia continues to disregard.”

If it is patently clear who the enemy is, does it really serve Ukraine’s national interest to lash out at someone who, if he cannot be considered a best friend, is certainly no evil-doer, as Mr. Podolyak suggested?

In any war, it is always prudent to maintain friendships with those who have friends in high places, and it does appear that Mr. Musk has them. According to Mr. Isaacson, the author, Mr. Musk had discussed his thoughts on Starlink and how in his view it should be used with both the national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.

No country has provided as much support, material and financial, to Ukraine as has America. Given that Ukraine continues to score multiple drone hits on Russian targets without the aid of Starlink, it undercuts Mr. Podolyak’s argument. 

Starlink, despite its communications utility, will likely in time be merely a blip on the crowded radar of this war. The social media mudslinging is a distraction that is best avoided, because the real fight is happening every day. Mr. Musk, an individual of protean talents, might yet come in handy for that.

The New York Sun

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