Russia Using STARLINK?

Russia Using STARLINK?

The US Department of Defense and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have reacted to recent claims, reported by Newsweek among others, that Starlink internet terminals were being shipped to and deployed in Russia via a Middle East intermediary.

Ukrainian soldiers have claimed that Russia’s military has begun using Elon Musk’s satellite communications network in Ukraine, with their accounts being quoted by a journalist in the country.

The claims have sparked outrage among pro-Ukraine figures and on social media, with some also pointing to Musk’s alleged restricting of Kyiv’s use Starlink in the occupied regions, including Crimea.

They also raised national security concerns related to his company’s Starshield contract with the Department of Defense.

In response to a Newsweek email, the Pentagon declined to comment. Newsweek also contacted Russia’s Defense Ministry via email for comment.

Elon Musk's Mom Comes to His Defense
A trail of a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay on February 7, 2021. Some Ukrainian soldiers have claimed Russia’s military is using Starlink for communications on the front line in Ukraine.

GETTY

Russia’s alleged use of the service was first reported by a Ukrainian journalist.

“The military writes that the occupiers have Starlink with licensed accounts,” Andriy Tsaplienko, a Ukrainian journalist, said on his Telegram channel, sharing a screenshot of two posts on X, formerly Twitter, that he says are from two Ukrainian soldiers.

“They began to deliver Starlink en masse, via Dubai, accounts are activated, they work in the occupied territories,” one of the soldiers with the X handle @_Serhij_ wrote, referring to the four regions of Ukraine that were illegally annexed by Russia in the fall of 2022—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

Another X user, @cpt_mitchell, said Ukrainian soldiers “can already see their Starlinks,” adding: “I honestly thought they would do it sooner.”

Starlink is operated by Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX. There is no evidence to suggest that Musk or SpaceX are aware of, or are responsible for, the reported issue.

In response to a Newsweek email, SpaceX did not provide a comment, but linked to its statement via a post on X, formerly Twitter.

“SpaceX does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military,” the statement said.

“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 Russian stores are claiming to sell Starlink for service in that country, they are scamming their customers.

“Starlink also does not operate in Dubai. Starlink cannot be purchased in Dubai nor does SpaceX ship there. Additionally, Starlink has not authorized any third-party intermediaries, resellers or distributors of any kind to sell Starlink in Dubai.

“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.”

The statement did not explicitly address the question about the potential use of Starlink outside Russia, namely in occupied Ukraine, fueling further speculation. The map of the geographies covered by Starlink on its website appears to include at least some contested territories and those occupied by Russia.

🤬 Musk’s Starlink is operational on occupied territory which is shown on their official website. Ukrainian fighters report that their own Starlink speed drops to 0.1 Mb/sec, a thousand times from promised speed. Russians are using their Starlinks without problems which is… pic.twitter.com/lCpuTXnxa8

— Ukrainska Pravda in English (@pravda_eng) February 8, 2024

Musk‘s SpaceX first deployed its Starlink satellites to help provide Kyiv with internet service in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Musk at the time said that the satellite-internet system provides Ukraine with a “major battlefield advantage.”

In June 2023, Starlink obtained a Department of Defense contract to buy those satellite services for Ukraine. Musk’s company has so far privately funded a network of nearly 4,000 satellites to be launched into low-Earth orbit. Kyiv’s troops use it for battlefield communications in the war with Russia.

But, in September 2023, Musk admitted that he previously prevented a Ukrainian attack on a Russian Navy base by declining Kyiv’s request to activate internet access in the Black Sea to avoid complicity in a “major act of war.”

“There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” he wrote on X in early September 2023. “The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor. If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

The US government is yet to comment on the reports. However, a Pentagon spokesman told Newsweek via email: “While we are aware of the reporting, we have no statement to provide.

“I’d refer you to our Ukrainian partners for any current operational information regarding satellite communications activities of this kind.”

Composite Musk and Putin
From left, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Musk’s SpaceX has said its Starlink service does not work in Putin’s Russia.

Getty

While SpaceX affirms that the Starlink network does not work in Russia, the country’s news outlets have claimed that Starlink satellite communications systems are now being sold via multiple Russian online stores, supplied via an intermediary in Dubai.

The systems are allegedly being sold to Russian volunteer units for use in the annexed regions of Ukraine, according to some local publications including BFM.

The terminals can be deployed in those four regions and in Crimea, which Putin annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Russian news outlet ComNews reported.

“Merchants do not hide the fact that Starlink kits are addressed to participants [of the war] and are bought up by them in large quantities,” the publication reported.

The news outlet cited Russian volunteers in the war, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said that there are many Starlink kits being used by Moscow’s troops on the battlefield in Ukraine, with ComNews’ source alleging Dubai as the location for the wholesale purchase of the equipment.

The claim, disputed by SpaceX, sparked questions about the United Arab Emirates’ alleged role.

“If this rumor is true, supplying Starlink via intermediary in Dubai should be considered a breach of sanctions against Russia. This also raises the question if Starlink is available for the Russians in the front?” asked Pekka Kallioniemi, a postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University in Finland, in a post on X.

Newsweek has contacted the UAE’s Embassy in Ukraine for comment by email.

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