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Russian forces have started deploying Starlink satellite technology in occupied Ukraine, the country’s military intelligence agency said, potentially eroding a significant technological advantage for Ukrainian forces as the war enters its third year.
Ukraine credits SpaceX’s Starlink as essential for soldiers to share information on the frontlines, coordinate drone strikes, and for intelligence gathering, as the satellite internet system is faster and harder to intercept than traditional radio or cell communications.
“There have been recorded cases of the use of these devices by the Russian occupiers. This is starting to take on a systemic nature,” RBC-Ukraine quoted a military spokesperson as saying.
One person working in Ukrainian defense technology, who declined to be named out of security concerns, told Semafor that: “Our guys see them all over the front line.”
SpaceX owner Elon Musk said on X that it was “categorically false” that the company was selling Starlink terminals to Russia, and that “to the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia.”
Russian Starlink access may limit one of Ukraine’s key advantages
If Russian troops have widespread access to Starlink, it would “curtail one of Ukraine’s chief battlefield advantages,” The Wall Street Journal reported. Once Starlink arrived in Ukraine in 2022, it quickly became central to the country’s military and government communications, with one Ukrainian soldier telling The Economist last year that “Starlink is our oxygen.” While the U.S. State Department declined to comment on the specifics of the reports, a spokesperson said that “Starlink has been a vital tool for the Ukrainians to communicate with each other, and particularly for the military to communicate in their effort to defend all of Ukraine’s territory.” Even so, Russia, which has denied purchasing Starlink terminals officially, is unlikely to come close to matching Kyiv’s Starlink network, which is composed of more than 30,000 terminals, the Ukrainian newsagency Ukrinform reported.
Russian websites and bloggers flaunt mysteriously acquired Starlink
A Ukrainian spokesperson told Reuters that Russian forces are purchasing the Starlink terminals illicitly via third-party countries, while Ukrainian media has reported that Russia has imported Starlink terminals via Dubai, and The Guardian said that Moscow’s troops may have pilfered terminals from Ukrainian positions that have since come under Russian occupation. Meanwhile, Russian web stores including Forgun.ru, iMiele.ru, and DJIRussia advertise Starlink terminals for sale.
However they were acquired, Russian Telegram channels have flaunted the use of the satellite system: one Russian military volunteer group based in the occupied Donbas region posted a video of several Starlink terminals, while a popular military drone channel posted a photo of “fresh Russian Starlinks.”
Opinions divided on whether SpaceX can stop Russian access
“Work is being conducted” to stop Russia’s use of the terminals on the front line, a Ukrainian military official told Reuters, while Ukrainians have called for SpaceX to move swiftly to block Starlink terminals in Russian hands from the network. But Oleg Kutkov, a volunteer Starlink technician based in Kyiv, told Semafor that: “I don’t think it’s possible to do anything unfortunately, because it is not possible to distinguish Ukrainian and Russian Starlinks.”
Most Ukrainian Starlinks are purchased and run by Ukrainian volunteers, so it would not be easy to identify which terminals are being operated by which side, Kutkov said. This problem is compounded by the fact that Russian and Ukrainian troops may be deploying Starlinks within a few kilometers of each other, he added.
Not everyone agrees that Russian Starlink use would be challenging to block. Yulia Latynina, a prominent independent Russian journalist, wrote on X that “it is not hard to write a program that will determine whether a Starlink is ‘legitimate’ or came from Dubai.”