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Elon Musk threatens to cut Ukraine’s Starlink internet funding

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Elon Musk upped the ante with Ukraine by threatening to cut off financial support for Starlink terminals that provide crucial broadband support in the war against Russia, putting pressure on other entities to step in and make up the shortfall.

Musk warned that his company SpaceX cannot help carry the cost of high-speed broadband internet for Ukraine indefinitely, after an earlier furor over his public comments suggesting the government in Kyiv cede territory in exchange for peace with Russia.

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SpaceX “is not asking to recoup past expenses on Starlink services in Ukraine,” Musk said on Twitter on Friday, but it also cannot sustain the financial support or send thousands more terminals to Ukraine.

The Starlink terminals deployed in Ukraine are using data as much as 100 times the amount of typical households, Musk added.

A week ago he tweeted that Starlink in Ukraine had cost SpaceX $80 million, which would likely surpass $100 million by the end of the year.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, has said previously the country is getting Starlink terminals free of charge, although he added there might be a different arrangement between Musk and the US Agency for International Development and European entities which provided Starlinks to Ukraine.

The terminals are proving crucial in supporting infrastructure across Ukraine and for its troops on the ground against Russian forces.

CNN reported on Thursday that SpaceX warned the Pentagon in September it may no longer partially fund the Starlink service in Ukraine unless the US military provided tens of millions of dollars of support per month.

Musk is the world’s richest man, with a net worth of $209.2 billion, according to Bloomberg data.

There was no immediate comment from the Ukraine president’s office or the digitalization ministry.

Ukraine has 20,000 Starlink terminals, provided evenly by USAID, Poland, the European Union and private companies, according to an October 5 report from the state-run news agency Ukrinform that cited Ministry of Digitalization data.

Poland purchased 11,700 Starlink terminals for Ukraine, including 5,000 acquired by state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen SA, according to Janusz Cieszynski, government official in charge of cybersecurity.

“We cover the cost of the regular service payment for each of the purchased terminals,” he said by phone. “SpaceX promised to cover the service cost for the terminals purchased by Orlen, but the government of Poland is covering the full cost of service amounting to around $50 monthly for each terminal.”

Musk angered Ukrainians -- from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy down -- with his recent suggestion that Ukraine should seek a negotiated solution to the invasion by Russia and cede Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014, for good.

Musk also launched a Twitter poll asking citizens of recently annexed occupied parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea to decide if they want to live in Russia or Ukraine, days after Ukraine, Europe and the US denounced the annexation moves of President Vladimir Putin.

At the time, Ukraine’s top diplomat in Germany, Andrij Melnyk, didn’t mince words, using an expletive in a response to Musk’s suggestion.

On Friday, Musk responded to a Tweet criticizing a decision to cut spending -- and referencing Melnyk’s profanity -- by saying he’s “just following his recommendation.”

Ian Bremmer, head of political-risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a note to clients this week that Musk told him about speaking recently with Putin.

Bremmer said that conversation came before Musk posted his tweets urging Ukraine to find a negotiated solution to the war. Both Musk and the Kremlin subsequently denied that he had spoken with Putin this year.

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