Kyiv’s main military intelligence agency said on Sunday that Russia is using Starlink terminals produced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX for satellite internet in what is beginning to look like its “systemic” application on the battlefield.
The company’s agile, easy-to-use units were rushed in to help Ukraine after Russia’s February 2022 invasion and have been vital to Kyiv’s battlefield communications. The service uses thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet and a network of terminals that connect the ground to those satellites.
Talk of Russian troops using the service bubbled up on Ukrainian social media and in the press last week. On Thursday, Starlink Inc., the company that produces the terminals, tweeted that it doesn’t have a presence in Russia and its service will not work there. It did not say whether that ban would include the four significant areas of eastern and southern Ukraine that Moscow illegally annexed in 2022, where hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are deployed.
On Sunday, the GUR intelligence agency cited evidence that Russia’s 83rd air assault brigade is currently operating near Klishchiivka and Andriivka in the occupied Donetsk Region, which are both close to the front lines where Ukraine and Russia are fighting. The report says the 83rd uses Starlink to communicate with its headquarters and other forces. It also says the 84th and 86th use the service to coordinate their activities.
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The GUR report said the 83rd’s commander, Col. Igor Kovalenko, told its officers on the ground that he had ordered his unit to use Starlink for communication with headquarters and other forces. The 83rd is currently in the vicinity of several villages that have been taken by pro-Russian rebels.
SpaceX CEO and founder Musk has been accused of not prioritizing U.S. interests over his own in dealings with foreign governments and military customers. Unlike traditional defense contractors, SpaceX operates as a private company and can take risks that don’t necessarily align with the federal government’s interests.
For example, the company is in talks with Royal Caribbean and Hawaiian Airlines to allow passengers aboard its private jets to surf the web on its wifi network. But whether the talks will translate into a deal needs to be clarified, which would require the FCC’s approval.
The elegant, easy-to-use Starlink units have been a critical tool for the Ukrainian army and other groups working in occupied Ukraine to communicate with each other and with NGOs and civilians, as well as to fly drones and help correct artillery fire. It is a far cheaper alternative to traditional telecommunications. CNN has seen the terminals used by troops on the ground and in helicopters that monitor occupied territory.
In a post on X, the company’s social media platform owned by Musk, he said reports that his SpaceX sold Starlink terminals to Russia were false. “To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have ever been sold directly to Russia,” he wrote. He added that the company’s equipment is geofenced to ensure it cannot function in unauthorized locations, such as Russian-occupied Ukraine.