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What just happened? The close relationship between SpaceX and Ukraine could be strained after the company limited the country's ability to use the Starlink satellite service for offensive military purposes. The move follows reports that Ukraine has been using Starlink to control drones.
SpaceX has supplied over 25,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine and maintained them since the war began, helping keep the nation's critical infrastructure and its citizens online as Russia continues its assault.
But Ukraine is said to have been utilizing Starlink in its offensive push against the Russian military, including using it to target enemies with drones, a violation of SpaceX policies.
Speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday (via Reuters), SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said Starlink was never meant to be weaponized.
"However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement," she said, referring to reports that Starlink had been used to control Ukraine's drones. "There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that [controlling the drones]," she said, "There are things that we can do, and have done."
A year of 🇺🇦 resistance & companies have to decide:— Ми...айло По'оляк (@Podolyak_M) February 9, 2023
-Either they are on the side of 🇺🇦 & the right to freedom, and don't seek ways to do harm.
-Or they are on RF's side & its "right" to kill & seize territories.#SpaceX (Starlink) & Mrs. #Shotwell should choose a specific option
Shotwell never revealed what actions SpaceX had taken to stop Ukraine from using Starlink for military attacks. She emphasized that the service could be used for military communications, but it was never intended for offensive purposes.
Back in October, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the company could not fund Starlink in Ukraine indefinitely, though other governments share the costs of equipment and maintenance. The company estimated that costs could reach almost $380 million over the following 12 months, and it wanted the US government to pay for additional terminals and ongoing service costs.
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.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 14, 2022
It was only a few days before Musk backtracked and promised that SpaceX would fund Ukraine "indefinitely," though the billionaire recently tweeted that every possible course of action it takes with Ukraine will lead to criticism, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't," he wrote.
The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we'll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 15, 2022
"SpaceX Starlink has become the connectivity backbone of Ukraine all the way up to the front lines. This is the damned if you do part," Musk wrote in a separate tweet. "However, we are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes. This is the damned if you don't part."
Russia warned last year that SpaceX satellites could become a "legitimate target." The country has attempted to jam Starlink signals in Ukraine, which Musk said has led to the company improving the security of the service's software.
Musk was previously involved in a war of words with the former head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, leading to a tweet from the Tesla boss about dying in mysterious circumstances.