Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service has been one of the most consequential technologies for Ukraine in the war, providing a vital online link for soldiers fighting the Russian forces even in areas where digital infrastructure has been wiped out.
But the extent of the military’s use of the technology is now coming into question after remarks in recent days by Mr. Musk and an executive at SpaceX, Mr. Musk’s rocket company, which operates the Starlink service.
Mr. Musk said last week on Twitter that SpaceX was “not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.” And on Wednesday, Gwynne Shotwell, Starlink’s president and chief operating officer, said at a conference in Washington that Starlink was “never meant to be weaponized.”
Ukraine, Ms. Shotwell said, had leveraged the technology “in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” according to Reuters. She added that Starlink had taken steps to curtail the Ukrainian military’s use of the technology for controlling drones.
Ukrainian officials on Thursday responded with a mix of anger and diplomacy, though they did not directly address the claims.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, tagged Ms. Shotwell in a Twitter post, saying that companies are either on the side of Ukraine and “the right to freedom,” or they are on the Russia’s side and the “right to kill and seize territories.” Starlink, he said, “should choose a specific option.”
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister who helped facilitate the first delivery of Starlink terminals to Ukraine after the invasion, struck a more conciliatory tone.
“Elon Musk is one of the biggest private donors of our future victory,” he said, with SpaceX contributing more than $100 million, according to the government’s estimates.
“We hope for further stable work of Starlinks in Ukraine,” Mr. Fedorov added in a statement. He said there has so far been no disruption of the Starlink system in Ukraine.
Starlink did not respond to a request for comment.
The relationship has been a boon for both sides. Ukraine has received technology that has been essential to its defense, while Mr. Musk, one of the world’s wealthiest people and one of its more unpredictable business leaders, has emerged with growing geopolitical influence.
But this is not the first tense moment. In October, Mr. Musk, who also oversees Tesla and Twitter, raised alarms in Ukraine and among its Western allies when he said he could not “indefinitely” finance Ukraine’s use of Starlink, though there has not been an indication since that access had been curtailed.