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The Starlink-Ukraine saga adds to Elon Musk’s history of flip-flopping, unnerving Tesla investors

With Tesla set to report earnings on Oct. 19, Musk's geopolitics are in the limelight again
Phone politics.
Phone politics.
Photo: Adrees Latif (Reuters)
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When Ukraine’s first deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked the world’s richest man to send over his SpaceX’s Starlink terminals, the billionaire acted quickly.

The terminals, which connect to a fleet of 3,000 low-earth orbit microsatellites launched by SpaceX to provide high-speed internet access, have not only helped citizens stay connected to news and the outside world, they’ve also kept communication lines up within the army and helped the forces execute drone strikes.

Countries such as the US, Poland, and the UK, as well as NGOs, have paid for thousands of Starlink devices. But with the war raging on, keeping the infrastructure up-and-running has become an expensive affair. In September, the company asked the Pentagon to pick up the tab, memos from SpaceX to the Pentagon, published by CNN, show.

However, given Musk’s recent political entanglements—including a controversial poll about annexed areas of Ukraine that prompted president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to take a jab at him—the decision took on a political hue. So Musk took a U-turn. On Oct. 15, he tweeted “to hell with it” and said SpaceX would continue funding the project “for free.” As of Oct. 17, he’s accepting crypto donations, although the website “elonhelpsukraine.com” was not reachable at the time of writing.

SpaceX in Ukraine, by the digits

25,000: Starlink devices sent to Ukraine; five times the original shipment

$100 million: How much SpaceX’s operation sending Starlink devices to Ukraine will cost the company by the end of the year

$20 million: Monthly burn of setting up terminals; creating, launching, maintaining and replenishing satellites and ground stations; paying telcos for access to internet via gateways; and defending against cyberattacks and jamming

70%: share of service provided to Ukraine SpaceX has paid for, which it claims to have offered at the highest level —$4,500 a month


“SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but 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.” —SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk

Brief history: Musk’s helping hand around the world

🇵🇷 Puerto Rico: In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, Tesla began helping with installing battery packs and repairing solar panels.

🇺🇸 US: Four year ago, Musk offered to fix the pipes in homes with water contamination to alleviate Flint Michigan’s acute water crisis because of dangerous levels of lead. He also spent nearly half a million on bringing water filters to schools.

🇹🇭 Thailand: When 12 boys were trapped in a Thai cave in July 2019, Musk sent over SpaceX and the Boring Company engineers to help. He also got a mini-submarine designed in 8 hours and shipped over in 17, in case the Thai government needed transport to get the boys out. (They didn’t use it). But for all the philanthropy, in a juvenile move, Musk called a British diver part of the rescue operation “pedo guy” after the diver, like many others, dismissed Musk’s involvement as a PR stunt.

🇮🇷 Iran: Last month, Musk said he was “activating” Starlink in Iran as the government began shutting down the internet to stop the spread of protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman in custody.

For all its benefits, one country doesn’t want anything to do with Musk’s space satellites owing to geopolitical tensions: 🇨🇳 China. It has already complained to the UN about SpaceX’s satellites coming too close to the country’s new space station twice. Clearly, the country could care less that Musk advocated handing over some control of Taiwan to Beijing.

Tesla stock spooked by Musk’s geopolitics

Musk is already the center of another controversy with his back and forth on buying Twitter. With Tesla earnings approaching in two days—on Oct. 19—Musk’s back and forth on Starlink in Ukraine adds more drama.

The stock has been sliding on the back of underwhelming results last quarter and Musk’s playing political expert.


📡 Did Elon Musk really lose $80 million helping Ukraine?

🌍 Starlink is coming to Africa, but who will use it?

🚧 China has safety concerns about Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites