Elon Musk may have finally flown too close to the sun. The Washington Post on Thursday published an excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Musk (free link) that includes important new details about the erratic billionaire’s decision to cut off (or refuse to activate) internet access in 2022 to prevent Ukrainian military forces from staging an operation in Crimea, a part of Ukraine on the Black Sea that Russia seized in 2014. Ukrainian forces have internet access through Starlink, a Musk-owned company satellite company.
We’ve known about this before; indeed, Ronan Farrow wrote about it in his recent New Yorker profile. What we didn’t know was that Musk made his decision after speaking with the Russian ambassador — or possibly even Vladimir Putin himself. Musk told Isaacson that he feared the offensive Ukraine was planning could lead to nuclear war, and that Starlink would be held responsible.
As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, Musk was using his privately held company, richly funded with U.S. government contracts, to play geopolitics at odds with official U.S. policy. At the very least, there needs to be a congressional investigation, and you’d like to think that Democrats and the majority of Republicans who support Ukraine could get together and make that happen. They should consider nationalizing Starlink and putting it under direct federal control. As Farrow’s reporting revealed, it has become untenable for one billionaire to control so much crucial infrastructure — not just Starlink but also SpaceX, currently NASA’s only means for launching satellites, and even the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, though that’s a more complicated issue.
People more knowledgeable than I will hash through those issues. At the moment, I’d like to consider a different issue — the fact that Isaacson sat on his scoop for a year. As he describes it, Musk texted him while Isaacson was at a high school football game in September 2022. Isaacson went behind the bleachers to respond. Isaacson writes:
“This could be a giant disaster,” he texted. I went behind the bleachers to ask him what the problem was. He was in full Muskian crisis-hero-drama mode, this time understandably. A dangerous issue had arisen, and he believed there was “a non-trivial possibility,” as he put it, that it could lead to a nuclear war — with Starlink partly responsible. The Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and it was using Starlink to guide them to the target.
Although he had readily supported Ukraine, he believed it was reckless for Ukraine to launch an attack on Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. He had just spoken to the Russian ambassador to the United States. (In later conversations with a few other people, he seemed to imply that he had spoken directly to President Vladimir Putin, but to me he said his communications had gone through the ambassador.) The ambassador had explicitly told him that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response. Musk explained to me in great detail, as I stood behind the bleachers, the Russian laws and doctrines that decreed such a response.
Throughout the evening and into the night, he personally took charge of the situation. Allowing the use of Starlink for the attack, he concluded, could be a disaster for the world. So he secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, when the Ukrainian drone subs got near the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, they lost connectivity and washed ashore harmlessly.
Did Isaacson have an obligation to report what he knew in real time rather than saving it for his book? It’s an issue that has come up over and over in media circles, especially whenever Bob Woodward of the Post publishes a new book, or when Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published her Trump book last year.
As I wrote at the time, I didn’t have a problem with Haberman, who emerged from her book leave on several occasions to report scoops she’d come across. And I don’t really have a problem with Isaacson, either. Unlike Woodward or Haberman, he’s a freelancer and doesn’t have an obvious outlet. Of course, he’s also one of the most prominent journalists in the country and would have had no problem working with a reputable news organization to get the story out. But that would have been the end of his relationship with Musk — bad for Isaacson’s book, obviously, but also bad for whatever other storylines he was able to develop in the months ahead.
In addition, Isaacson’s Starlink scoop was incremental. The news that Musk may have been taking dictation from a high-level Russian official is devastating, but, as I said, we’ve known that Musk cut off Starlink access to harm Ukraine’s war effort for quite some time. Farrow’s story wasn’t the first occasion that had come out, either. Nevertheless, the implications of Isaacson’s account are enormous. Here’s Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, writing on Twitter:
Sometimes a mistake is much more than just a mistake. By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities. As a result, civilians, children are being killed. This is the price of a cocktail of ignorance and big ego. However, the question still remains: why do some people so desperately want to defend war criminals and their desire to commit murder? And do they now realize that they are committing evil and encouraging evil?
Late though Isaacson’s account may be, he, like Farrow, has done a real service by revealing that Musk’s behavior is quite a bit worse — and more damaging — than most of even his harshest critics understood. That’s really saying something given that Musk and his followers this past week launched attacks that fed into antisemitic tropes against the Anti-Defamation League. It is time for this dangerous spoiled brat to face some real consequences.