Elon Musk secretly ordered his engineers to disable Starlink satellite communications near the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea last year to sabotage a planned Ukrainian drone strike.
Musk was worried the drone submarine attack, which was targeting the Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol, would escalate tensions and potentially lead to a nuclear war, according to an extract from historian Walter Isaacson’s upcoming biography “Elon Musk.”
Musk on Thursday evening painted a slightly different picture to the one described by Isaacson. He said satellites in those regions were never turned on in the first place and he simply chose not to activate them.
The extract, published by the Washington Post on Thursday, shows Musk’s journey from eager supporter to reluctant ally of Ukraine.
Isaacson writes that Musk reportedly panicked when he heard about the planned Ukrainian attack, which was using Starlink satellites to guide six drones packed with explosives towards the Crimea coast.
After speaking to the Russian ambassador to the United States — who reportedly told him an attack on Crimea would trigger a nuclear response — Musk took matters into his own hands and ordered his engineers to turn off Starlink coverage “within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast.”
This caused the drones to lose connectivity and wash “ashore harmlessly,” effectively sabotaging the offensive mission.
Ukraine’s reaction was immediate: Officials frantically called Musk and asked him to turn the service back on, telling him that the “drone subs were crucial to their fight for freedom.”
But Musk was unwavering. He argued that Ukraine was “going too far and inviting strategic defeat” and that he did not want his satellites used for offensive purposes.
This was the beginning of a well-documented cooling of relationships between Ukrainian forces and the billionaire entrepreneur, who had been helping keep Ukraine online since the beginning of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion through his Starlink satellites, as Ukrainian infrastructure was severely damaged by Russian attacks.
But as Ukraine moved on the offensive, Musk started restricting the Ukrainian military’s use of Starlink in Russian-controlled regions and for drone control, while also warning he would stop financially supporting of the service. His argument was the same: He wanted to prevent the conflict from escalating into a world war.
“There was an emergency request from government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol,” Musk said on X (formerly Twitter). “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.”
Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday praised Musk’s choice to shut down Starlink during Ukraine’s strike attempt.
“If what Isaacson has written in his book is true, then it looks like Musk is the last adequate mind in North America,” Medvedev wrote on Musk’s X. “Or, at the very least, in gender-neutral America, he is the one with the balls.”
“Elon Musk,” a biography by historian, professor and former Time magazine editor Isaacson, is set to be released on September 12.
This story has been updated with comments from Elon Musk.