The Russian military is now using Starlink communications terminals along the front lines of the war in Ukraine, according to claims by the Ukrainian military seemingly corroborated by images posted on social media.
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency on Sunday said it had intercepted radio traffic that confirms Russia’s use of the terminals, which provide broadband internet access via a constellation of low-orbit satellites. “Yes, there have been recorded cases of the Russian occupiers using these devices,” Ukrainian intelligence officer Andriy Yusov told RBC-Ukraine. “This is starting to take on a systemic nature.”
Starlink, a product of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been used by the Ukrainian military since Musk enabled the service in the country soon after Russia invaded in 2022. It’s been considered a strategic advantage for Ukraine, which has used the high-speed service for secure communication and for running targeting and other military software.
On Friday, Defense One was first to report on the development. In addition to insights from Ukrainian sources, the report included a screenshot from Ukrainian drone video that seems to show the distinctive profile of a Starlink terminal on a targeted Russian position.
Meanwhile, KatyaVayla, a Russian volunteer group based in the contested Donbas region, posted a video on Telegram in which it proudly displayed five Starlink terminals it procured for the Russian military:
One of the Russian volunteer efforts I profile on a regular basis, KatyaValya that is based in Donbas, is displaying their recent purchase of DJI drones and Starlink terminals. https://t.co/GGcI9GW8lG https://t.co/RJQrRJLxWd pic.twitter.com/rAFiCKdTVM
— Samuel Bendett (@sambendett) February 8, 2024
To this point, Russia may only have dozens of the Starlink terminals. “When they have hundreds, it’ll be hard for us to live,” a Ukrainian source told Defense One.
Responding to the report, Starlink said it “does not do business of any kind with the Russian government or its military. Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country.” It’s one thing to prevent Starlink from working in Russia. However, any attempt to prevent Russian use of Starlink along the shifting front lines inside Ukraine would almost certainly have collateral effects on the Ukrainian military.
This growing loss of a technological advantage over Russia is just the latest bad news for the Ukrainian military, which is increasingly under-gunned and under-manned. “Ukrainian artillery units…are firing around 2,000 shells per day, barely a fifth as many as their Russian counterparts,” reports Defense One. The sorry state of affairs follows a highly-touted 2023 counteroffensive that ultimately did next to nothing to change the battle lines.
A number of false news reports claim that SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia.
This is categorically false.
To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2024
Some Ukrainian outlets have raised the possibility that the Russian Starlink units were obtained in Dubai. SpaceX was quick to note on X that “Starlink also does not operate in Dubai. Starlink cannot be purchased in Dubai nor does SpaceX ship there.”
SpaceX’s provision of Starlink terminals to Ukraine has been a thorny undertaking from the start. The firm said it hadn’t intended for the system to be weaponized. “Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” said President Gwynne Shotwell in 2023.
Last year, SpaceX ruffled feathers when it said it could no longer provide the service to Ukraine for free; the Pentagon stepped in to pick up the bill and act as a middleman to ease Musk’s concern over being directly involved in the conflict.
Musk says he earlier refused a Ukrainian request to activate the service in Crimea, as he feared Ukraine would use the product to sink Russian warships docked at Sevastopol and potentially spark a major escalation of the war — perhaps even a nuclear one.
We’re glad someone with influence on the war takes that threat seriously.