Democrats probe Russia’s alleged use of SpaceX Starlink in Ukraine

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The Starlink photo is seen on a mobile device with Ukraine on a map in the background in this illustration photo in Warsaw, Poland on 21 September, 2022.

STR | Nurphoto | Getty Images

House Democrats Robert Garcia, D-Calif. and Jamie Raskin, D-Md, sent a letter to SpaceX demanding transparency from the defense contractor following reports of potentially illegal purchases and use of Starlink satellite internet equipment by Russia in occupied territories of Ukraine. 

The congressmen also announced a probe of SpaceX by the Democratic House Committee into the company’s safeguards and procedures for preventing illegal exports and use of its Starlink equipment and services. The Washington Post first reported on the probe and March 6 letter to SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk enjoyed accolades for providing Starlink terminals and satellite internet service during the early days of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, while Western governments and non-governmental organizations worked to supply Kyiv with air defense systems and critical assistance.

Later, Musk said, “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes,” according to an authorized biography of the tech magnate by Walter Isaacson.

The book also said Musk had ordered SpaceX engineers to shut off Starlink’s satellite network over Crimea to thwart a Ukrainian attack on Russian warships.

Upon the book’s publication in 2023, that information — the accuracy of which Musk has denied — drew the ire of Ukrainian officials including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Kyiv’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) said in February that there was mounting evidence of Starlink use by Russian forces in the partially occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.

In a statement on Thursday, the congressmen wrote, “Russia’s use of Starlink satellite terminals would be in contravention of U.S. export controls that prohibit Russia from acquiring and utilizing U.S.-produced technology.”

House Democrats are not the only elected officials demanding greater transparency from SpaceX and how the company controls its vast, global satellite communications network.

In February, the bipartisan House China committee and its leader Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., sent a letter to Elon Musk demanding that U.S. troops stationed in Taiwan access to SpaceX’s Starshield, a satellite communication network designed specifically for the military. A lack of access could violate contractual obligations between SpaceX and the Department of Defense, Gallagher said in his letter.

The company said at the time in an e-mail to CNBC, “SpaceX is in full compliance with all of its U.S. government contracts.”

The company did not respond before publication to a request for comment on the new probe regarding the possible use of Starlink by Russia in occupied parts of Ukraine.

The new probe by House Democrats follows news on Wednesday that a man in New Jersey was arrested on charges of allegedly trafficking 675 SpaceX Starlink terminals which were purchased with stolen credit card accounts or hacked Starlink billing accounts.

Police told CNBC that, along with SpaceX, they were still investigating the trafficking and exactly how the purchases were made. It is unclear where all the equipment that enables Starlink’s high-speed satellite internet service was ultimately bound.

Read the full letter to SpaceX:

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