As the invasion of Ukraine by Russia teeters on the edge of its second week, conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate. Russia’s inexorable march through Ukraine’s biggest cities has been stymied by stiffer-than-expected resistance from the Ukrainian military and civilians who have taken up arms and joined the fight.
However, satellite surveillance recently showed a 40-mile-long column of Russian tanks and heavy equipment bearing down on the capital of Kyiv. As the war presses inward and the government struggles to maintain control of their resources, the concern that Russia could bring down their internet and communications has been growing.
Billionaire Elon Musk has stepped up to provide a solution to that concern – an effort which may help the Ukrainian resistance continue to hold out against Russia.
Starlink Arrives in Ukraine
As cities fall and people worry that they will lose contact with friends and family in embattled regions, Tesla founder Elon Musk may have exactly what Ukraine needs – or not.
In the past few days, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov has pled with Musk to bring them some equipment to run Starlink internet – a broadband satellite service designed to provide fast internet to rural or otherwise difficult-to-connect regions in the world. On February 26, Musk tweeted that they had activated Starlink service in Ukraine – and hardware was en route.
Starlink is a new evolution of an old technology. Satellite technology is not new and was one of the first available options for those looking for dial-up alternatives in the mid days of the ’90s internet boom. With Starlink, all people have to do is plug in the hardware – the dish – and the technology automatically seeks out the nearest satellite, of which there are currently over 2,000 in the skies around the planet.
From there, the satellite communicates with a gateway which must be reasonably close to the dish, and the dish receives internet. In the case of Ukraine, nearby Poland operates a gateway making the connection easy. The BBC explains, “The internet connection travels from the gateway to the satellite, and then to the terminal. Users simply plug their router into their terminal and the tech takes care of the rest.
One of the major issues with previous iterations of satellite internet is the delay, but Starlink’s constellation of satellites is a relatively new technology – they operate in low-Earth orbit, so the delay is measured in milliseconds rather than seconds.
Usually this would come at a cost. In the UK, it will cost you £495 for the dish (including shipping), and then a subscription of £89 per month. There is no indication that Ukrainians will be charged for the service.
The terminals need a clear view of the sky in order to work, and there is an app to help users find a suitable spot to place them.
Ordinary considerations are overhanging trees and other obstructions – in Ukraine, users will have to consider safety and how they may appear to Russian forces.”
While it sounds like an answer to everyone’s prayers, there are some problems with the technology. For one, it may pose a security risk. Satellite technology by nature of how it works allows for a signal to be triangulated and may provide Russians an electronic target to aim at. In addition, speed varies from slow to very fast – so it could be challenging for some areas to get the speed they need.
But all in all, for now it provides the most hopeful sign that the Ukrainian government can maintain control of communications and people can access the hotspot-like internet to stay in touch with one another and possibly organize resistance. Another satellite operator in the region has already fallen to cyber-attacks, so hopefully Starlink won’t follow suit.
Musk Has Shown Up in a Pinch Before
As the world nervously watches Starlink come online in Ukraine and hopes this will continue to provide a lifeline, it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the first time Musk has leveraged his impressive resources to help a nation in need. Although he’s often a controversial figure known for firing off hot-headed tweets and faces constant criticism for how he handles his billions of dollars – Musk has in the past shown up with helpful technology. When 12 soccer players were stuck in a cave in Thailand, Musk showed up with a submarine designed to help free the children from the flooded caves. Ultimately, the submarine was not used – and Musk left it behind in case they should need it in the future.
And earlier this year, a tsunami struck the vulnerable island nation of Tonga following a volcanic eruption. Musk donated Starlink hardware to help restore internet connectivity to the country as it struggles to recover.
While Musk is busy working on creating computer chips that can be implanted directly into the human brain to integrate our lives and cure disease, working out the details of the first human settlement on Mars, and a variety of other pie-in-the-sky but somehow possibly achievable technology futures, he’s also doing some good in the here and now. Love him or hate him, Starlink is turning out to be a godsend – sent by man.
Russia is Using Controversial Technology
As good technology does good things in Ukraine, bad technology is making headlines as well. Russia is being accused of using a horrifying banned technology against Ukrainian people known as thermobaric weapons, or “vacuum bombs.” Vacuum bombs are currently against the Geneva convention.
Vacuum bombs are a two-stage munition that does unimaginable damage by detonating fuel and two different explosive charges.
Per Business Insider, “The first munition is dropped or fired and the explosive charge bursts open a container, dispersing fuel in a cloud that mixes with the oxygen in the atmosphere. The second charge detonates the cloud, creating a blast wave and sucking out the surrounding oxygen like a vacuum, according to a past study by Human Rights Watch.
The intense blast wave lasts longer than typical explosives and is capable of obliterating human bodies. The weapon is most effective in enclosed spaces like bunkers, foxholes, and reinforced buildings and on anyone wearing body armor, Human Rights Watch said.
A 1993 CIA study reported by the NGO said thermobaric weapons are particularly dangerous because they are ‘prone to indiscriminate use,’ adding that ‘those near the ignition point are obliterated.'”
Russia has been accused of using thermobaric weapons before, in Chechnya, Afghanistan and a border skirmish with China. Although right now all we have is speculation on the part of the Ukrainian military, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says that if it’s proven to be true, it could be considered a war crime.
The parallel stories of Starlink and vacuum bombs show that man’s potential for good or ill works in equal parts – it’s what we do with knowledge that decides the day. For now, Ukraine is working on connecting as much of the country as possible in the hopes that the Russians can’t cut them off and isolate the government and resistance forces – a sure death blow.