Elon Musk’s politically charged tweets complicating diplomacy from Ukraine to Taiwan

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Elon Musk often wields his Twitter account as a weapon -- threatening to back out of his deal to buy Twitter or insulting President Joe Biden as a damp sock puppet “in human form.

More recently, the world’s richest person veered into more treacherous geopolitical territory by offering head-scratching proposals to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and settle questions about Taiwan’s sovereignty.

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His tweets and other public comments have angered presidents and foreign ministers across Europe and, awkwardly, won praise from America’s rivals.

Now Musk is escalating again, putting his money where his mouth is: On Friday, he threatened to cut financial support for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service in Ukraine, a move that would deny the country a key means of communication in the fight against Russian forces.

While Musk is hardly the first American business executive or celebrity to get tangled up in foreign policy, his wealth and penchant for mischief -- not to mention his multibillion-dollar defense contracts -- make him harder to ignore.

It’s a phenomenon that will only become more pronounced if Musk’s $44 billion bid to buy Twitter Inc. outright goes through. Such a move would allow him to shape the debate in ways he hasn’t had the power to do -- by controlling the platform directly.

Asked in an email about criticism that his comments touch on sensitive diplomatic and geopolitical matters, Musk answered: “When did Bloomberg News become worthless trash?”

American diplomats are well-aware of Musk’s controversial comments, a State Department official said, discussing the situation on condition of anonymity, and they make clear to allies and close partners that the high-profile executive’s comments are those of a private citizen and don’t reflect the Biden administration’s thinking.

“Starlink and Twitter are both small in global terms but have outsized importance for key countries and constituencies,” said Jon Bateman, a senior fellow for technology and international affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “All this means that Musk’s pronouncements on international affairs, which have lately been naive at best, cannot simply be ignored.”

Whether or not he’s acting in any official capacity, there’s no question that Musk’s words carry weight.

With his high-level connections around the world and his vast economic influence, there have been lots of questions about his motives for getting involved, particularly after Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer said in a widely disseminated newsletter that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the SpaceX founder had spoken.

Musk later tweeted this claim was false, and that he hadn’t spoken to Putin in 18 months -- and even then, that it was about space. Bremmer later doubled down, tweeting that Musk had “told me he had spoken with putin and the kremlin directly about ukraine.”

“He also told me what the kremlin’s red lines were,” Bremmer said -- suggesting that Russian officials, at least, may have seen him as some sort of a back channel.

“I’ll let Mr. Musk speak for his conversations,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby replied when asked about a possible call between the billionaire and Putin. “Obviously, he’s not representing the United States government in those conversations.”

Celebrity Politics

Celebrities of all stripes have long waded into politics and foreign policy. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman partied in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But Musk’s influence goes far beyond basketball infamy, with a sprawling digital reach fueled by his contrarianism and his vast wealth -- a fortune of about $209 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

His company SpaceX has won Pentagon contracts for national security satellite launches, and his Tesla electric vehicle factory in Shanghai is the company’s biggest. Starlink has also been proposed as a way to help protesters in Iran -- a notion Musk helped promote when he tweeted that SpaceX would seek an exemption to US sanctions to deploy there.

And most significant of all, he’s pursuing his purchase of the social media site Twitter Inc. after threatening -- on Twitter, of course -- to back out in May.

“Billionaires often seek to influence public discourse on global affairs,” Bateman of the Carnegie Endowment said. “Elon Musk may be the only ultra-rich person, other than Donald Trump, who shapes conversations so directly through his personal cultural power.”

Ukraine Feud

The latest back-and-forth over Starlink took on a threatening sheen after a previous Twitter spat he’d had with Ukraine. Last week, he’d tweeted a proposal that Ukraine cede territory that Russia claimed to have annexed in order to end the war.

Finland’s former prime minister said Musk’s intervention made him Putin’s “useful idiot. One Ukrainian diplomat, Andrij Melnyk, was more blunt, tweeting “F**k off is my very diplomatic reply to you @elonmusk.”

On Friday, Musk said on Twitter his company SpaceX couldn’t keep carrying the cost of Starlink in Ukraine indefinitely, adding that the operation had cost SpaceX $80 million so far.

He later sent another tweet saying that Russia is “actively trying to kill Starlink” and that he has had to divert “massive resources toward defending the service.”

When Musk was asked what was behind the warning over Starlink, Musk tweeted -- in an apparent joke -- that he was just following Melnyk’s recommendation.

Underscoring Ukraine’s reluctance to get into a Twitter flame war with Musk, the country’s leaders blinked on Friday.

“Let’s be honest. Like it or not, @elonmusk helped us survive the most critical moments of war,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted. Ukraine “will find a solution to keep Starlink working. We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations,” he wrote.

Taiwan’s Future

Musk had also suggested, in comments to the Financial Times, that self-ruled Taiwan agree to become a special administrative zone of China, angering Taiwanese officials and leading the island’s defense minister to declare the military would no longer purchase any Tesla products.

Musk’s Tesla electric-vehicle company derives about 25 percent of its revenue from China.

His suggestion certainly cheered the Chinese ambassador to Washington, who praised Musk in a series of tweets, because they dovetailed with Beijing’s longstanding desire to “reunify Taiwan with China.”

“I would like to thank @elonmusk for his call for peace across the Taiwan Strait and his idea about establishing a special administrative zone for Taiwan,” Ambassador Qin Gang wrote.

“Disentangling Musk’s economic interests from what he is saying is hard enough,” says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO. “But the fact that basically he’s becoming a mouthpiece, at least in these two instances, of two governments whose behavior is diametrically against the interests of the United States is problematical.”

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