The recent revelations about Ukrainian naval operations being obstructed due to a lack of support from Elon Musk’s Starlink system have shed light on his complex relationship with Russia and Ukraine. However, there is more to this story, as other technology giants such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others have also played crucial roles in Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion.
The involvement of tech companies and their employees in the war raises new questions about the role of private industry and civilians in times of conflict. These companies are providing essential capabilities for Ukraine’s national survival out of choice, not obligation to any of the states involved in the conflict.
For example, Amazon’s support and cloud services were instrumental in evacuating Ukrainian government data before the invasion. Microsoft and ESET, an information technology company, have played a critical role in protecting Ukrainian government and civilian networks against Russian cyber-attacks.
Google is providing support services for Ukrainian government functions and ensuring protection for government websites and embassies worldwide. These companies, along with numerous smaller private sector and civil society organizations, offer their services either pro bono or with funding from Western governments that support Ukraine.
Unlike Starlink, these companies have made it explicitly clear which side they are on and have chosen to back Ukraine due to their values and duty to their other customers. However, their support often goes unnoticed compared to the publicity surrounding Starlink’s involvement.
The case of Starlink highlights the vulnerability of depending on goodwill. Twitter and SpaceX, under Musk’s leadership, demonstrate how major tech platforms hold power without accountability. Musk’s personal decisions can have life-saving or life-threatening consequences. For instance, Musk’s tweet stating his refusal to allow a Ukrainian raid on Russian warships shows the imbalance of power. Ukrainians fighting against Russian aggression did not find comfort in this decision.
This is not the first time Ukraine has relied on Starlink and been let down. Geofencing obstructed communication capabilities for advancing Ukrainian forces in 2022 when they entered newly liberated areas. Additionally, Starlink placed usage restrictions in 2023 that prevented offensive purposes, including providing communications for controlling drones. These restrictions further hindered Ukraine’s operations.
Lessons should be learned from these instances, particularly regarding conflicts where states rely on private industry goodwill. Critical warfighting capabilities can be compromised due to a violation of terms of service. In future conflicts, where loyalties of private companies may cross borders, their decisions could be influenced by commercial exposure and potential loss of business.
The defense of Western societies also depends heavily on the capabilities of private sector security firms. The example of Ukraine raises questions about where the loyalty of these firms lies. Governments must ensure that the right decision is an easy one for companies to make, especially in future conflicts involving major technology companies.
The involvement of SpaceX and other corporations in supporting Ukraine’s resistance is driven by their belief that it is the right thing to do. Governments need to create conditions that encourage companies to make similar decisions to support the right side in future conflicts.