More on Musk, Starlink and Ukraine

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I wanted to share this email from TPM Reader VN. It picks up where we left off talking about Elon Musk, Ukraine and the rise of the state-like global oligarchs. VN’s email may read like a criticism or a rejoinder of my earlier points. But as we discussed in our subsequent correspondence, I basically agree with the points they make.

Musk’s behavior has been atrocious. But he shouldn’t have been allowed to be in that position in the first place. That’s on the Pentagon and the U.S. government more generally. In the first rush of enthusiasm and support for Ukraine, Musk shipped a bunch of free Starlink devices to Ukraine and agreed to cover the cost of the service. Later when he cooled on Ukraine he started threatening to shut the service off if the Pentagon didn’t pick up the tab. That’s standard mercurial behavior from Musk. But of course the Pentagon and more broadly the U.S. should be picking up the tab. Much as I loathe the person Musk has turned out to be, I remember thinking at the time, how can this even be a question? Of course they should pick up the tab. The idea that we’d leave it to the whim of someone like Musk to be covering the cost of mission-critical technology for an ally at war is crazy. The back and forth over the cost got sufficiently messy that it has always been unclear to me whether there wasn’t something more to the argument. But, again, of course the U.S. should pay for it — at least once it was clear how critical it would be to the Ukrainian war effort.

The whole brouhaha and how the whole disagreement about cost spun a bit out of control appeared to stem from three basic reasons. First, at the outset of the war it simply wasn’t clear to people at the Pentagon or many other places that Starlink’s service would be as critical as it was. This must at least to some degree be because of the central role drones and even off the shelf drones have played in the war, as well as the small reconnaissance and tactical units the Ukrainian army relies on. Second, the whole U.S. government seemed slow to grasp just how central not only Musk’s companies but Musk himself had become to critical technology that foreign militaries could be dependent on. Third, building on one and two, they didn’t realize quite what a freak Musk had become.

It’s worth noting that at least Musk’s public transition to freakdom was happening as the war was breaking out and getting under way. It’s interesting to think of the difference between how a major defense contractor is seen within the Pentagon procurement apparatus and what many of us were seeing unfold in real time on Twitter. Did those two paths cross? Probably not much. I don’t know what the relevant parties have made of it but the idea that a major U.S. defense contractor — SpaceX/Starlink definitely counts — is in regular communication with the Russian government and even the Russian President and making military supply decisions on that basis is simply crazy. CRAZY.

Even now, as the U.S. and Ukraine try to catch up, he’s clearly still too big for the rules to apply to him.

In any case, with all that preview, here’s VN

Saw your post on Musk and Starlink and while I broadly agree with some of your points and criticisms of Musk, I think that there are some things that you omitted in your discussion of this debacle. 

My number one criticism is of the Biden admin and the US military and how they managed this situation from the beginning. Recall that Starlink was enabled in Ukraine because of a tweet from the Ukrainian minister of technology requesting it and Musk being the mercurial character that he is, saw the tweet and turned it on (think about how crazy that is). So the US government and the Pentagon, assumed that Musk would provide this service indefinitely without a contract or any required oversight from the government until June of this year. That’s frankly crazy. The government should have put Starlink under some sort of contract immediately after the value of Starlink was established, which they clearly didn’t understand, till it was actually deployed in Ukraine. Now they’ve done that under the Starshield-SpaceX service which lets the government deploy Starlink however they like for military purposes. They should have done this immediately after they knew he was talking to Russian officials and started spouting his nonsensical opinions about Crimea and Ukraine and not waited till just a few months ago. That, along with denying and slow-walking key weapons systems that they ended up agreeing to provide, was one of the key mistakes of the Biden admin. There was no need to rely on Musk’s whims at all.

The problem is that there is really no true alternative to SpaceX yet. Till three years ago, America was launching astronauts on Russian rockets. Boeing was supposed to have an alternative service that NASA was contracting with but their program is late and keeps running into safety issues or not working. Bezos is planning on a satellite service with his Blue Origin space company, but they only want to launch satellites on their own rockets which they haven’t been able to build and are years late on. The Europeans don’t have enough launch capacity and their new rockets are also years late. OneWeb is the only alternative but they only have a few satellites up and the technology is nowhere near as good as SpaceX and they neither have the satellite volume nor the military capabilities. SpaceX is literally the only game in town and now the US military is all in with them because they have no choice and their technology is so much better and degrees of magnitude cheaper. Not sure what the solution is other than putting Musk and SpaceX under contract, which they did but months too late.

I do think what gets lost in the recent coverage about Musk and Ukraine, is that if you look at the value of Starlink to Ukraine and the good that it has done, it is worth noting that Musk has done far more good in Ukraine and for Ukrainians than not. Starlink has saved thousands and thousands of military lives and helped the Ukrainians fight. (See here from the Wapo yesterday and here from the WSJ as a couple of many articles on the subject.) That should be acknowledged for the sake of accuracy and balance in the coverage/analysis, which I haven’t seen much of in the media (or maybe just the Twitter people that I follow) after this Crimea story erupted. Much of the people and coverage that I read of Musk has been extremely harsh – deservedly so! – but you would never know that what he’s done in Ukraine has been a net positive, even if his opinions on Ukraine, Crimea and Russia are screwy and frankly misguided. 

Having said all that, he is a total asshole and nincompoop for not allowing turning on Starlink in Crimea for the reasons that he’s stated. Like I said, I think that the good that he has actually done for Ukraine outweighs the bad, but the negative side of the ledger has extra weight from the destruction and lives lost that may have been avoided from whatever ships that may have been destroyed or disabled and the missiles not fired from them. I guess that only God knows the counterfactual of what could have been the alternative if Musk had extended the Starlink service to Crimea but not understanding that the Russians are the bad guys here who must be defeated is a permanent stain on him.

I used to admire the man a lot for his accomplishments. SpaceX is, frankly, an astonishing company and Tesla is even more important since it is dragging the entire auto industry to an emission free future. I wrote to you before that I can forgive Musk for almost anything since solving global climate change is the most important issue in the world and since he’s doing the most of any human in doing something meaningfully positive in that direction, but he’s turned into such an insufferable jackass that I can barely square that fact. I guess it’s like separating artists from their art.

I also wrote to you before and said Musk is really a person of the left for the positions that he holds on climate change, UBI, prior support of Democrats etc… and you responded that he’s not anymore and that he’s on the right now. You were correct and I was wrong. He’s turned to this vainglorious, megalomaniacal and, frankly, occasionally malicious character, who has surrounded himself with a bunch of sycophants and internet dregs. It’s astonishing to me how a person who is obviously not stupid, feels the need to engage with goons and grifters like Cernovich, Ian Miles Cheong and the rest of the rightwing internet freakshow. It just goes to show how that level of fame, money, and power can seep into the cracks and flaws of one’s character and corrupt a person so entirely. It’s alternatively enraging and depressing.

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