Voices: Elon Musk’s Ukraine decision was rational. But it should never have been his

Elon Musk (AFP via Getty Images)
Elon Musk (AFP via Getty Images)

“Really, none of this concerns you?”

CNN’s Jake Tapper spoke for many of us when he asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken this direct and blistering question on yesterday’s State of the Union. The two were discussing revelations in Walter Isaacson’s new biography on Elon Musk, released tomorrow, that the billionaire sabotaged a Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy in Crimea by refusing to enable access to the Starlink satellite network on the peninsula – a network Musk owns and a fact he himself has confirmed.

After saying he “can’t speak to a specific episode,” Blinken seemingly praised Musk’s willingness to even allow the Ukrainians access, saying “Starlink has been a vital tool for… particularly the [Ukrainian] military to communicate in their effort to defend all of Ukraine’s territory.” This, of course, ignores the fact that Crimea is Ukrainian territory illegally annexed and occupied by Russia in 2014.

“I don’t know that you can’t speak to it,” Tapper said bluntly. “You won’t speak to it.”

If that sounds like an ungenerous rebuke from the CNN anchor, it isn’t. Last month, in a lengthy investigative piece for The New Yorker, journalist Ronan Farrow reported that US government officials “now treat [Musk] like a sort of unelected official” because of the power he wields. Investing in areas where state investment has receded following decades of neoliberal privatization, such as in electric cars and, yes, Starlink, Musk has made himself and his companies indispensable to US national security and other policy priorities.

I find it hard to believe that none of this concerns Blinken. It certainly concerns me, and it should concern every single American.

It also concerns foreign governments and allies, including Ukraine, which The New York Times reported in July has raised concerns over Musk’s control of Starlink with Washington. “At least nine countries – including in Europe and the Middle East – have also brought up Starlink with American officials over the past 18 months, with some questioning Mr. Musk’s power over the technology,” The Times reported, quoting two US intelligence officials who were briefed on these discussions. Even more concerning, the piece noted that “few nations will speak publicly about their concerns, for fear of alienating” Musk.

The main problem here is not that Elon Musk is an unpredictable oligarch whose whims are now dictating world affairs – though that is certainly a problem – but rather that we are in a position where a billionaire CEO needs to be treated with such deference to begin with.

Not that long ago it went without saying that there should be no “unelected officials” in a democracy. We famously did away with them in 1776 when we told King George III to take a hike. Unelected and unaccountable, the Founding Fathers rightly understood that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The American people – and for that matter, the Ukrainian people – have ever consented to be governed by Elon Musk, yet it is clear that is precisely what is happening. Musk’s vast wealth and immense corporate holdings coupled with Western democracies’ apparent disinterest in research and development over the past several decades – a responsibility abrogated to the private sector beginning with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – has put us in the position of needing to depend on the goodwill of corporate benefactors and (hopefully) benevolent billionaires.

Musk is not Batman, though, and Ukraine is not Gotham City. He is a businessman, a capitalist whose primary motivation – regardless of what he says – is not to improve humanity or secure democracy, but to make money. After saying it could no longer afford to support Ukrainian war efforts, SpaceX, Musk’s company that owns and controls Starlink, has already made at least $3 million from the US government to provide access to Starlink in Ukraine.

To you and me sounds like a lot, but it is pocket change to a billionaire like Musk. How much does Musk stand to lose if he runs further afoul of the Kremlin, though? It is hard to say. We know he has business dealings there though – Tesla acquired much of is aluminium, beginning in 2020, from a Russian company.

For his part, Musk has said – according to Farrow’s report – that he is uncomfortable with Starlink being used in war. This tracks with his tweet from September 7, explaining his refusal to turn on Starlink in Crimea. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation,” he wrote.

It is worth noting that Russia has not escalated to nuclear war, though it often uses that as a threat to dissuade Western actors from acting in Ukraine’s interest. Writing today for The Atlantic, Anne Appelbaum reports that a similar attack to the one Musk allegedly feared would escalate the war ended up occurring a few weeks later. “And then?” she asks, rhetorically. “Nuclear war did not follow. Despite Musk’s fears ... World War III did not erupt as a result of this successful attack on a Crimean port.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, isn’t buying it. “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, [Elon Musk] allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. AS a result, civilians, children are being killed,” he tweeted. “This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego.”

Is this the price of abrogating such a responsibility to a profit-driven actor? Look at his desperate attempts to revive Twitter-cum-X, a platform he singlehandedly destroyed, so that it turns a profit. Or the fact that he claimed SpaceX could not afford to continue Starlink in Ukraine. This is a man for whom the bottom line matters.

This is also a man who does not have access to the intelligence collected by US agencies nor the expertise of longtime diplomats and military strategists in the White House, at the State Department, or at the Pentagon. He does not have the geopolitical knowledge to know what is and is not a bluff on Moscow’s part.

Nor, I might add, is it reasonable to expect him to. Elon Musk makes cars and rockets, not foreign policy. At least, in a sane world, that is how it would be.

Considering this, it is hard to fault Musk for this decision. Whether he was afraid of escalating a war or afraid of diminishing his own profit margin, the choice was rational. The problem is that the choice should never have been his.