On May 8, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said via his personal Telegram account that business tycoon Elon Musk would “have to answer” for providing “military communications” to “the fascist forces in Ukraine.”
Rogozin claimed that “testimony” from a captured Ukrainian military officer showed that “ground-based subscriber equipment” from Musk’s Starlink satellite company “was delivered to the militants of the Nazi ‘Azov’ battalion and the marines of the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] in Mariupol by military helicopters.”
“According to our information, the delivery and transfer to the Armed Forces of Ukraine of Internet reception and transmission boxes from Starlink were carried out by the Pentagon,” Rogozin wrote. “Thus, Elon Musk is involved in supplying the fascist forces in Ukraine with military communications.”
That is false.
The fact that Musk’s satellite broadband system has been widely distributed in Ukraine since the war has been no secret. But in addition to providing military communications, Starlink is being used by hospitals, schools and fire departments in Ukraine as well.
Russia has falsely tried to justify its war on Ukraine as a fight against fascism, but that’s been widely debunked. Connecting Musk to purported fascists is a blatant smear.
In fact, Starlink, a division of Musk’s SpaceX aerospace manufacturer, is helping keep Ukrainians connected to the internet amid Russian cyberattacks aimed at cutting them off from the world.
After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it followed with a massive cyberattack targeting internet servers and networks in Ukraine and across Europe.
Starlink provides an alternative to ground internet servers. U.S. government funding has helped pay for its distribution.
According to Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, more than 10,000 Starlink terminals are operating in Ukraine, serving some 150,000 users.
The satellites have kept essential services in Ukraine running and secured the country’s access to communications and information. More than 590 medical facilities received Starlink terminals to keep them online during the war.
To maintain an ability to censor Ukrainians, Russia rerouted a fiber-optic cable used by Ukraine’s internet service providers to a Russian-linked provider in Crimea. Starlink provided a way to evade Moscow’s censorship, Ukranian officials told the Financial Times.
In fact, most of the Starlink terminals are for civilian purposes, though they have been used to help Ukraine drones target Russian tanks and to help soldiers communicate, Wired magazine reported, citing Ukraine’s Fedorov.
Due to their small size, Starlink dishes allow Ukrainian forces move with less chance of being detected and targeted, Foreign Policy reported.
In April, The New York Times posted a video that Sgt. Leonid Kuznetsov of the Ukrainian National Guard sent via Telegram. Kuznetsov was holed up in a bunker with fellow soldiers and 1,000 civilians inside Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant. Kuznetsov was able to communicate with the world and report on the situation using the Starlink network.
(Russia has tried to portray the Ukraine army's Azov Regiment as fascist, but that has been debunked by multiple fact checkers. It is Azov fighters who have been defending Mariupol and who are now under seige at Azovstal.)
According to a senior U.S. military official, Starlink proved to be more efficient than the U.S. military in resisting Russia’s jamming attacks against its systems. On April 20, Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, told the C4ISRNET Cybersecurity Conference that after one jamming attack, “Starlink had slung a line of code and fixed it.”
The most visible Russian cyberattack came in late February and targeted Viasat, Inc., one of the world’s largest commercial satellite providers. The attack crippled thousands of modems communicating with Viasat’s KA-SAT satellite, disrupting communications in Ukraine.
A Viasat official told Reuters that hackers sabotaged the company’s modems and disrupted its work across Europe, but mainly in Ukraine, the day Russia launched its invasion.
Most modems remained offline for more than two weeks. That affected Ukrainian banks and government websites, as well as Ukraine’s army and the security services, whose communications systems ran over Viasat’s network.
Russian hackers were initially suspected of being behind the cyberattack, and on May 10, the United States, Britain, Canada, Estonia and the European Union officially accused Russia of having carried it out.
The U.S. State Department said the disruption of communications in Ukraine caused by the deletion of data from Ukrainian government websites, defacement of websites and malicious disruption of traffic, were “all part of the Russian playbook.”
“The United States has assessed that Russian military cyber operators have deployed multiple families of destructive wiper malware, including WhisperGate, on Ukrainian government and private sector networks,” the State Department said.
On April 27, Microsoft released a report which said that Russian-state cyber actors launched destructive cyberattacks timed with military operations targeting critical services in Ukraine.
Microsoft said it observed 40 cyberattacks targeting hundreds of systems, and that 32 percent of them targeted Ukrainian government infrastructure at the national, regional and city levels. Microsoft said that as the war rages on, such attacks will continue.
On May 1, Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection (SSSCIP) said the country’s cyberspace was under severe pressure from Russian hackers.
Ukrainian TV and radio stations are also under Russian attacks aimed at limiting Ukrainians’ access to news and information. The SSSCIP said Russia is deliberately destroying broadcasting networks’ infrastructure to deny Ukrainians “reliable information on developments in the war and the situation in Ukraine.”
Cybersecurity authorities in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom said in an advisory released in April that intelligence reports indicated Russia was looking for potential cyberattack targets.
The advisory noted an increase in malicious cyber activity in the region and advised infrastructure network defenders to prepare for cyberattacks, including destructive malware, ransomware, denial-of-service attacks and cyber espionage.
On May 10, Musk said on Twitter that Starlink had been successful so far at deflecting Russian attempts to hack the system, “but they’re ramping up their efforts.”