Musk versus Putin: Fists and Bytes

In one of those truth-can-be-stranger-fiction events, two weeks ago Elon Musk tweeted this challenge to Vladimir Putin: “I hereby challenge Vladimir Putin to single combat. Stakes are Ukraine,” adding in Russian, “Do you accept this fight?”

I am not aware of this challenge affecting the course of Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Musk has made a significant contribution in another area. Modern warfare is all about rapid, voluminous information gathering, processing, and dissemination. The internet has become the backbone of much communication. In areas like Ukraine with less-developed cable and fiber infrastructure, internet access is commonly via cellular service.

Ukraine’s cellular service was significantly degraded by the first week of the invasion by loss of territory and widespread bombing of infrastructure. What could be done? It turns out that Elon Musk’s Starlink swarm of low-orbit satellites is designed to provide internet service for areas of the globe that are underserved by standard methods like cable and cellular. Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted  to Musk, “While you try to colonize Mars – Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space – Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.”

Musk responded within days by launching and/or repositioning satellites and providing thousands of ground-based Starlink terminals, providing much-needed communications for the beleaguered Ukrainians. Starlink is now the most-downloaded app in Ukraine,  and is used to direct Ukrainian attacks on Russian tanks. Such is the power of private enterprise. One wonders if the U.S. governmental agencies would have been able to provide such service so quickly.

As reported by The Wire, the Russians have complained that Musk’s actions constitute interference: “When Russia implements its highest national interests on the territory of Ukraine, Elon Musk appears with his Starlink, which was previously declared purely civilian.” Musk’s ironic reply: ““Ukraine civilian Internet was experiencing strange outages – bad weather perhaps? – so SpaceX is helping fix it.”

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