War is an unfortunate part of the human existence and the conflict in Ukraine is no exception to that.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, it did so by destroying cell towers and hacking into user modems. For multiple days, Ukrainian citizens had no way of letting their loved ones know that they were still alive.
Luckily, the international community soon came to the rescue. More precisely, the 5,000+ Starlink devices that were quickly deployed in war-ridden territories helped Ukraine in a variety of ways.
In summary, Starlink helps Ukraine by allowing it to attack Russian troops, with communication among its citizen and government officials, by keeping the economy intact, and by rebuilding infrastructure.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at each of those in the section below.
1. Military Attacks
Starlink is being used by the Ukrainian army in a multitude of ways, most of which can largely be described as intelligence gathering and attack coordination.
Back in December 2022, the New York Times sent two of its journalists to Bakhmut, which is located in the east of Ukraine. The city itself had been without power for the previous 6 months.
The two journalists accompanied a task force that was collecting information on Russian artillery and troops. Although the Starlink they used was only able to access the internet for a few minutes, they still managed to send positional information to Ukrainian officers.
This is just one illustrative example of what military professionals describe as c4isr (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). Traditionally, armies have relied on satellites to communicate in war zones.
Unfortunately, those have largely been made redundant by the Russian military and hackers when the conflict in Ukraine unfolded on February 24th, 2022. One of Russia’s first points of attack was to destroy Ukrainian cell towers.
Additionally, the country’s proficient army of hackers remotely disassembled Ukrainian satellite modems, which meant that both citizens and the Ukrainian army were not able to efficiently communicate with each other for weeks.
Starlink has now become essential to Ukraine’s intelligence-gathering efforts. Ukrainian soldiers often upload images and location data to encrypted group chats hosted on Telegram and the like. Army commanders, who are part of those groups, then discuss and decide whether to attack and if so, how and when.
Interestingly, Starlink’s portability also means that it can not only be used by soldiers but other machinery. Back in September 2022, a Ukrainian naval drone that had a Starlink dish mounted on it washed up on Crimean shores.
Drones are often used to capture aerial imagery, which not only supports Ukraine’s intelligence collections but also attacks.
“Thanks to the communication through the Starlink terminals, it was enough just to shoot regularly and adjust the fire. The voice communication was 24/7, so we regularly received corrections or, for example, information that the ammunition did not explode and other detonators need to be screwed in,” a Polish volunteer recalled in an interview with MIL.IN.UA.
The Financial Times underlined the importance of Starlink for the Ukrainian army, stating that “outages led to a “catastrophic” loss of communication” in early October.
However, using Starlink may also pose significant risks for Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. One of Starlink’s biggest threats is the fact that the dishes can potentially be spotted by Russian drones and thus serve as a target for strikes.
Elon Musk himself reiterated that threat soon after the war started, stating that Starlink should only be turned on “when needed and place antenna away as far away from people as possible.”
Lastly, the Ukrainian army has also experimented with mounting Starlink dishes on movable objects such as trains. The military usage of railways, if still functioning, could allow the Ukrainian army to stay connected while transporting important machinery to areas of conflict.
However, Starlink does not allow usage of drones. SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said in an interview that the system was “never never meant to be weaponized” and that “there are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that.”
However, she failed to elaborate exactly what Starlink and SpaceX did to curb the usage of drones.
Another huge factor in how Starlink helps war-riddled Ukraine is by also allowing its citizen to communicate with each other and receive news from reputable (government) sources.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, gave us a glimpse into how everyday citizens are using Starlink to access the internet.
Locals were able to contact their families after the country’s electricity grids and communication towers were bombarded by Russian missiles days into the war.
Apart from letting their loved ones know that they are alright, citizens of Ukraine also need access to the internet to protect themselves, for example by sharing information about potential attacks or where to shelter.
Back in April 2022, Starlink was also deployed as a temporary fix to restore the internet in the liberated areas of Kyiv Oblast, shortly after Russian troops departed from it.
Another important aspect where Starlink comes into play is government communication. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy often distributes his appeals and messages through different (encrypted) platforms such as Telegram or Viber.
This ensures that morale among both citizens and soldiers remains high while avoiding people being subjected to Russian propaganda media.
3. Keeping the Economy Afloat
Another way in which Starlink helps Ukraine is by allowing citizens to continue earning money while remaining in the country.
Take, for example, IT services. In 2021, the year before the conflict broke out, the Ukrainian IT industry generated roughly $6.8 billion from its various IT-related services.
Now, that figure may seem low in the context of exports. However, since Ukraine’s exports for the year totaled $68 billion, IT services actually contributed to 10 percent of those sales.
Ensuring that the internet remains available therefore enables companies to stay afloat while keeping employment intact and morale high.
In fact, 85 percent of all business owners in Ukraine are still meeting their client commitments according to a survey by the IT Ukraine Association.
Sanctions against Russian citizens have also led to thousands of contract terminations, some of which have certainly been picked up by Ukrainian firms.
Furthermore, crippling cash reserves could put a serious dent in Ukraine’s war efforts, which currently hinge on donations made by its foreign allies.
SpaceX CEO Musk had previously pointed out that the still unprofitable Starlink is bankrolling a substantial portion of the hardware that’s being shipped into the country. He even contemplated pulling the service altogether.
Luckily, after serious public backlash, in large parts due to pro-Russian tweets that involved the surrendering of Ukrainian territory, Musk ultimately backtracked.
In the subsequent days, Ukrainian citizens came forward and pointed out that they actually paid for Starlink themselves. Those that can pay for the service are likely still employed, which would skew towards IT professionals and thus support the argument of Starlink’s positive effect on the Ukrainian economy.
Lastly, a thriving IT industry will also be crucial in the country’s eventual post-war recovery, for example, by attracting foreign investments.
4. Rebuilding Infrastructure
The last benefit of Starlink to Ukrainians is its ability to help restore key infrastructure – both during the war and after its hopefully-soon-arriving end.
Again, having a functioning internet connection will ultimately allow Ukrainian citizens and companies tasked with the rebuilding to better coordinate.
However, even during current war times, Starlink has helped reinstate existing infrastructure. One example of this being the case is Vodafone, which is one of the country’s most-used telco providers.
Vodafone Ukraine, back in April 2022, said that it reconnected the towns of Irpin and Romanivka using Starlink. More precisely, Vodafone armed one of its base stations with Starlink equipment, which reinstated 2G and 4G configurations.
“Thanks to this scheme of work,” wrote the company in the statement, “Vodafone was able to quickly restore mobile communications in areas with damaged nodes.”
Other liberated territories have also been put back online. Local providers like Kyivstar or Lifecell used Starlink to provide functioning connections across entire cities.
How Many Starlink Devices Are in Ukraine?
In an interview with Bloomberg, digital minister Fedorov disclosed that the country has received about 22,000 Starlink antennas to date.
That number has since been revised to 42,000. This is, at least, according to Twitter user Dima Zenuik. Official government sources are yet to confirm that figure.
Digital minister Federov previously tweeted that Germany would be sending another 10,000 terminals to the Ukraine starting February, which likely contributed to the increase. The donation was part of a $20 million contribution to support the country.
Going forward, we can expect even more terminals in the war-ridden country. In early June 2023, the US Department of Defense announced that it inked a deal with SpaceX to provide hardware to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Starlink, when the war in Ukraine broke out, quickly became the country’s most-downloaded app with over 100,000 installs.
Those downloads had been made possible by the 5,000+ Starlink devices that were initially sent to Ukraine. Over the coming months, Ukraine has received hardware from a multitude of organizations.
For example, the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, delivered another 5,000 Starlink terminals in early April to the Ukrainian government.
About 1,333 of those devices were directly funded by USAID while the rest were donations from SpaceX totaling $10 million.
Apart from the U.S. government and American companies, some terminals are also sponsored by European governments like Poland or Germany.
Ukrainian citizens are also chiming in. Software engineer Dimko Zhluktenko, for example, runs a charity that raises funds for soldiers. The donations he received allowed him to purchase around 200 terminals at a cost of $500 per device.
The constant resupply of Starlink terminals remains crucial to Ukraine’s war efforts as currently used devices may be destroyed by missiles and other weaponry.
By the way, before you think about throwing your own dishy away: users can actually donate their hardware directly to Starlink, which may deploy it in conflict areas such as Ukraine or Iran. The donation link can be found here.
Is Russia Using Starlink in Ukraine?
No, Russia is not using Starlink devices – at least not within its own country. A quick look at Starlink’s availability map shows that Starlink is not available in Russia.
Generally speaking, you can’t just use your Starlink hardware wherever you please. The access is normally limited by geofencing, so it would simply not connect to the internet if you were on Russian soil.
Now, Russian troops may use Starlink devices in Ukrainian territories that they capture. However, so far there has not been any indication of this being the case.
What is certain is that Russians aren’t too pleased about Starlink’s usage by and in Ukraine. In a statement on October 26th, 2022, Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of Russia’s foreign ministry threatened that they could potentially shoot down Starlink satellites.
“Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation,” he stated, reproving what he dubbed “an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies.”
Unfortunately for the Russian government, it would take a few thousand missile strikes to bring down Starlink’s constellation of 3,300+ satellites.