Russian forces in occupied Ukraine are using Starlink terminals produced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX for satellite internet in what is beginning to look like a “systemic” problem, Kyiv’s main military intelligence agency has claimed.
Starlink terminals were rushed in to help Ukraine after Russia’s February 2022 invasion and have been vital to Kyiv’s battlefield communications. Starlink says it does not do business of any kind with Russia’s government or military.
“Cases of the Russian occupiers’ use of the given devices have been registered. It is beginning to take on a systemic nature,” said Ukrainian defence intelligence (GUR) spokesperson Andriy Yusov.
The GUR said terminals were being used by units like Russia’s 83rd air assault brigade, which is fighting near Klishchiivka and Andriivka in the partially occupied eastern region of Donetsk.
Starlink terminals are supposed to be “geofenced” so they do not function in unauthorised locations. There has been discussion online that, for example, Russian forces may be able to “spoof” the geofence to make a terminal in a blocked area appear as if it is in a permitted area. It has also been suggested that Russian soldiers might use ill-gotten terminals in areas of Ukraine that were cleared for Starlink to help the Ukrainians, but have since come under Russian attack or occupation.
In a post on X on Sunday, Musk said: “To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia … A number of false news reports claim that SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia. This is categorically false.”
Musk did not appear to address whether Russian soldiers might be obtaining and using Starlink terminals regardless. In its own statement, Starlink also did not say anything about their possible use in occupied areas of Ukraine.
“If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorised party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed,” Starlink said.
Neither Musk nor Starlink outlined any pro-active efforts to prevent Russian forces from obtaining terminals or connecting to Starlink; nor did they say whether specific Ukrainian claims were being investigated.
Ukraine’s GUR agency said it had intercepted an exchange between two soldiers discussing setting up the terminals. It posted what it said was an audio clip of the exchange on the Telegram messenger by way of evidence.
The GUR did not say how it thought the terminals had been obtained by Russian forces – whether for instance they had been procured from abroad or captured from Ukrainian forces.