SpaceX’s Starlink terminals back online in Ukraine after outages

Some of the Starlink internet devices that had suffered outages have come back online in the past few days, restoring crucial lines of communications in territory recently liberated from Russian occupation, say Ukrainian soldiers and officials.

The improvement was recorded hours after the Financial Times reported widespread outages during Ukrainian counteroffensives, two Ukrainian government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The development was most prominent in the southern Kherson region, where battles are the most intense, said one of the Ukrainian officials and soldiers on the ground.

Kyiv’s troops use the portable devices, which are made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to communicate in the battlefield where internet access has been cut off. The same Ukrainian officials last week said the outages occurred in the middle of counteroffensives in the south and east. Their account was confirmed by soldiers on the frontline and a Starlink terminals donor.

One person overseeing dozens of Starlink devices along the frontline said those that were offline in some newly-liberated locations last Friday were working again by Sunday morning.

The Ukrainian officials said the timing of the disruptions and subsequent restorations have raised suspicion the problems had not been caused by technical malfunctions, nor jamming by Russian forces, suggesting it could be the result of SpaceX-imposed geographical restrictions.

One of them said: “If it’s jamming this cannot be changed so quickly.”

A US official said they were aware of the Starlink issue but that there was more nuance to it. Western officials said Russian jamming could explain some of the outages.

Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said he hoped Musk did not render the devices ineffective in certain areas, adding: “If he did, this was unacceptable as it means he has taken a direct part in the war by damaging our capabilities.”

“It’s not up to private individuals or companies to decide what is escalatory and intrude into equipment our allies provided us with,” Zagorodnyuk said.

Musk and SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Kyiv praised Musk for allowing its Starlink satellites to broadcast after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February, but has recently angered Ukrainians by suggesting they should cede Crimea to Russia.

Last Friday, after the FT reported the Starlink outages, he tweeted: “what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified”.

A few minutes later, he said he was “in regular contact” with Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in charge of digital transformation, who oversees many of the Starlink systems deployed in the country. Fedorov declined to comment.

On Sunday, a day after the bridge that connects Crimea to Russia was damaged by an attack, Musk tweeted he had “been up all night trying to think of any possible way to de-escalate this war”.

Ian Bremmer, head of risk consultancy Eurasia Group, alleged in an note sent to subscribers on Monday that Musk told him he had declined Ukrainian requests to turn on coverage in Crimea. The US-based billionaire allegedly cited his concerns that any Ukrainian efforts to free the peninsula, unilaterally annexed by Russia in 2014, had a “potential for escalation”, according to Bremmer’s note, seen by the Financial Times. On Tuesday, Musk tweeted: “Nobody should trust Bremmer.”

Thousands of Starlink systems have arrived in the country since the start of the war, either via donations from SpaceX, the US government and European countries, or via crowdfunding led by individuals. They have proved crucial to troops regaining territory held by Russians for months, where there is little to no Ukrainian mobile phone coverage.

Each device, which can also be powered with a battery, connects with one of SpaceX’s satellites, allowing dozens of soldiers and civilians to use WiFi to access the internet.

They are used by drone operators to send live feeds back to targeting units. One drone operator said he used five separate Starlink terminals, each secured with encryption and transported with special care.

“When we get into our positions, we set up the Starlink, and thanks to Elon Musk, the real visuals of the battlefield are automatically provided to our colleagues,” he said.

Source: Financial Times