Nothing new about Elon Musk eating his words. However, doing so left the 51-year-old backtracker’s ego and pride deeply hurt this time. Mr Musk, the world’s wealthiest individual, hurled an incendiary bomb on 14 October, when he declared he would not fund his Starlink satellite-internet services in Ukraine ‘indefinitely’. SpaceX, Mr Musk’s aerospace company, is Starlink satellite-internet service provider in Ukraine. https://www.reuters.com/technology/musk-says-spacex-cannot-fundukraines-starlink-internet-indefinitely-2022-10-14/
Though this declaration muddied the geopolitical waters, Mr Musk managed to salvage the situation to an extent by his quick volte-face the next day. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/15/the-hellwith-it-elon-musk-says-spacex-will-fund-starlink-internet-in-ukraine However, planetarians are now unsure when Mr Musk would do his next U-turn. Such uncertainties kill meticulous planning and calculated manoeuvres. Living on tenterhooks is a risk much greater than his earlier threat of disrupting his Starlink internet services.
Musk’s Irrational Indecisiveness
This comedy of errors has made Ukraine wiser, as it prepares itself with contingency plans to face abrupt U-turns in future by service providers like Starlink. However, the Damoclean danger persists. What appears to be Mr Musk’s irrational indecisiveness continues to be a global threat for many nations. Threat because no one knows for sure when Mr Musk would do an abrupt about-turn to upset the geopolitical applecart.
Truly, Starlink has been a crucial winning element in the survival and success of the Ukrainian army ranged against the mighty Russian Goliath. Mr Musk is the CEO of Tesla, Inc and the founder of SpaceX, a private corporate entity, wherein he holds 44 per cent. Globally, Tesla, Inc is the most valuable auto company and SpaceX is the second most valuable unicorn. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla,_Inc. https://equalocean.com/analysis/2022092918973.
As such, Starlink has been the communication backbone and the neural internet architecture of the Ukrainian army – its digital lifeline since the onset of Russia’s mindless war machine on the smallish Ukraine. Thus, Starlink deserves the credit for many of the advances made by Ukraine in this war. Against this pre-eminence of Starlink, Mr Musk did initially threaten to leave Ukraine disconnected and defeated.
Could Go Back on his Words
This internet indiscretion and constant to-ing and fro-ing of Mr Musk are causing concern in peace-loving nations around the world. Hurling himself at the deep end of a geopolitical controversy, Mr Musk, with his explosive cocktail of bombast and bravado, is seeding the clouds of a global chaos. As Ukraine reclaims its Russia-occupied regions and continues to make gains by checking the ruthlessness of an expansionist, Mr Musk’s initial move to reject Ukraine’s request to use Starlink in Crimea and his volte-face now are creating a new paradigm of disorder.
Had Mr Musk carried out his 14 October threat, unimaginably worse would have been the fate of the 20,000-odd Starlink terminals in Ukraine. These terminals are funded by SpaceX and three Western nations – the United States, France and Poland – with their allies. https://www.politico.eu/article/elon-musk-spacex-starlink-satellitesfunding-ukraine/
These terminals are working in tandem with satellites in space and facilitating internet access by Ukraine. Had Mr Musk stuck to his gun, what would have happened to the 20 per cent of these terminals, used directly by the Ukrainian army? Fortunately, Mr Musk did a U-turn and decided not to carry out his threat. Yet, a pall of uncertainty continues to hang over these terminals. An unsure Mr Musk does not know what he wants and thus he could go back on his words anytime.
On the Backburner for Now
What happens to the expenses incurred to date on terminals and satellites used by Ukraine? Will Mr Musk claim them again later from Ukraine or from the federal government of the United States? Mr Musk says these expenses add up to USD 80 million. Currently, Mr Musk is spending USD 20 million a month for Ukraine’s connectivity needs. What about the service charges waived by an initially-magnanimous Mr Musk? Though Mr Musk says he would not demand repayment of any of these, Ukraine is keeping its fingers crossed on when he would retract his words. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-1003/musk-says-support-for-ukraine-has-cost-spacex-80-million-so-far
Crossed-fingers because Mr Musk-watchers say it is not easy to read his mind. No mind-reader can decipher what is criss-crossing his strangely-wired brain. Thus, despite negating his 14 October tweet the following day, he may be eyeing at the eye-popping opportunity cost of the wealth of data on his terminals, which could be used otherwise by fee-paying individuals and corporate users. A back-of-the-envelope arithmetic proves the point behind such a commercial exploitation.
Currently, Starlink internet is accessed by individual and corporate users in 40 national markets. In America, Starlink charges a monthly fee of USD 100 to 500 per terminal plus an upfront one-time capital cost of USD 600. Why wouldn’t Mr Musk love to use the humongous data on his terminals and leverage them as his great money-spinners? Sure, he would. Thus, possibly, Mr Musk has not given up on his greed, he has only shifted to a backburner for now. This is how he operates most of the time. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/10/13/politics/elon-muskspacex-starlink-ukraine/index.html
Scores Poorly on Trust Parameters
As Mr Musk has failed to elaborate on his long-term plan of action vis-à-vis the Starlink terminals in Ukraine, perhaps driven by hubris or arrogant ignorance, concerns continue to mount in Zelenskyy country. Though Mr Musk is saying now he would continue to fund Starlink in Ukraine, the suspense hangs overhead as an ominously dark cloud. Geopoliticians believe the Starlink terminals in Ukraine could be snapped and disconnected anytime on the whims of a somersaulting SpaceX supremo.
What else can you expect from Mr Musk, an untrustworthy corporate honcho, who, in his own clownish style, trying to back out of his USD 44 bn deal to buy Twitter? The Twitter deal has moved once again to the forefront now after a judge gave both Mr Musk and Twitter Inc time until 28 October to close the deal. Trust and honouring promises are critical to corporate deals, and Mr Musk scores quite poorly on these parameters. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/10/06/tech/elon-musktwitter-lawsuit-stay/index.html
Drawing Greater Global Ire
Significantly, an important clue to Mr Musk’s geopolitical grandstanding was found on 3 October, when he tweeted about his Russia-Ukraine peace plan. In this audacious tweet, Mr Musk was suggesting Ukraine should accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, desist from joining the NATO and agree to fresh referendums on secession of Russiaoccupied territories.
Essentially, Mr Musk was batting for an expansionist Russia and its aggressor-autocrat Putin. https://fortune.com/2022/10/17/elon-muskukraine-peace-transmitting-russian-messages-fiona-hill-vladimir-putin/ What drew greater global ire was Mr Musk’s outrageous companion proposal, made in the same breath, advising Taiwan to secede and merge with China. Mr Musk is yet to negate his weird proposals.
Double-Talk and Two-Timing
Worryingly, Mr Musk favours Donald Trump, a known China-baiter and a hardcore right-wing nationalist. Juxtapose this fact with Mr Musk’s Tesla, which has a large operation in China, a huge market for his cars. Rooting for a sinophobe and relying on China in the same breath to promote his auto products betrays Mr Musk’s duplicity. Such double-talks and two-timing strategies are sure to jeopardise Mr Musk’s future in China. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/uspolitics/elon-musk-politics-republican-twitter-b2199036.html However, in popular media, Mr Musk adopts an anti-Trump stand, proving again his penchant for double-talk.
This ambivalence raises an important geopolitical question. What is Mr Musk standing for – free speech, which he declared to be upholding while launching his Twitter takeover bid, or fake baiting news of the Trumpian variety? Where does Mr Musk’s loyalty lie – in the settled order of an inclusive democracy or in the exclusionary disorder of Putin’s autocracy? Trapped in between the twists of tricky geopolitical relations and the turns of a rule-disrespecting world order, Ukraine should have foreseen the enormous risks ingrained in tying up with a vacillating corporate vagabond.
There is a lesson for Ukraine here. The Zelenskyy country should desist from dealing with Mr Musk, ‘the poster boy for unfettered power,’ without a contingency plan. There is a lesson here for other nations too. Taking Mr Musk at face value is pregnant with toxic possibilities and akin to riding a mud horse in the turbulent sea of geopolitics. Worse, believing Mr Musk to be a righteous champion of global underdogs is injurious to the health of geopolitics.
As Mr Musk continues to bombard his followers with his roll-on-roll-off tweets, he and his belligerent gobbledygook broadcasts are threats. Not for Ukraine alone, for rest of the nations as well. Recently, in an interview published in The Financial Times on 8 October, Mr Musk says China should “figure out a special administrative zone for Taiwan.” Yet another proof of Mr Musk’s undying love for geopolitical smokescreens.