Elon Musk has a lot to say about Ukraine; and a lot to learn

The first and most important argument Musk and some Republicans make for abandoning Ukraine is that, as he put it during the webcast, “there is no way in hell” Russia can lose the war.
Last Updated : 15 February 2024, 03:31 IST
Last Updated : 15 February 2024, 03:31 IST

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By Marc Champion

When it comes to aiding Ukraine against its invasion by Russia, Elon Musk just went from Kyiv’s accidental hero to Moscow’s. The man who sits on the world’s largest pile of wealth, part of which comes from Pentagon defense contracts, is now actively working to thwart US foreign policy.

Ukraine’s tragedy has become a core campaign talking point for Donald Trump’s election bid, alongside immigration, with Musk acting as one of several amplifiers in getting the two messages out. He’s been promoting the border issue for a while, but on Ukraine it was only this week he moved from the occasional pro-Russia post on his X social media platform, once called Twitter, to running a live-space that hosted likeminded Republicans as they try to block aid for Ukraine in Congress.

Musk came out swinging just a day after the main intelligence service in Kyiv said it had proof Russian forces were now using his Starlink communications network on the battlefield. Musk says his company never sold any Starlink units to Russia, which is surely true, as doing so would directly contravene US sanctions. Russia buys its Western technology indirectly, and if others are selling his product in breach of sanctions, Musk should be outraged and investigating, rather than blustering.

The livestream panel, viewed more than 2 million times, failed to block the Ukraine package in the Senate on Tuesday, where it was bundled together with money for Israel and Taiwan. Money for border control was stripped out of the bill, due to opposition from Trump. Now the package goes to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the path to approval is much narrower.

Blocking it makes good political sense, if you care about nothing but securing a second Trump administration. So long as the border remains in chaos and Ukraine’s defense is collapsing, both failures will unfold on President Joe Biden’s watch, in real time. But MAGA talking points on Ukraine also echo Kremlin propaganda and are deeply flawed. Musk, of course, doesn’t see it that way, and in the webcast, he described attempts to paint him as an apologist for Russian President Vladimir Putin as “absurd.”

As I’ve written before, Musk didn’t get enough credit for his early decision to help Ukraine’s defense by providing them with Starlink, restoring the essential battlefield communications that Russian forces destroyed in their first February 2022 attacks. But he has seemed to walk back from that decision ever since, and has come full circle.

The first and most important argument Musk and some Republicans make for abandoning Ukraine is that, as he put it during the webcast, “there is no way in hell” Russia can lose the war. It has greater manpower and more resources than Ukraine, so why go on supplying the armed effort when it can’t hope to take back lost territories?

The second talking point is that ending US support would be the best thing for Ukrainians themselves. The third, is that the US money sent is probably being stolen by a Ukrainian administration that is corrupt and authoritarian, muddying the rare moral clarity that surrounded Putin’s unprovoked invasion. Putin’s an authoritarian? What about Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy? He canceled elections!

Except that he didn’t. Under Ukraine’s constitution, elections can’t be held as long as a state of emergency is in place, and there’s a war on. Holding an election would breach the constitution. Ukraine does, of course, have huge issues with corruption, but military aid is mostly in kind – $35 billion of the $95 billion Ukraine/Israel/Taiwan package will go to purchases from US arms manufacturers. There has been no evidence of systematic black-market arms sales out of Ukraine, nor, as yet, of Western financial aid going astray. It’s a sure bet that some has, but show me a war without corruption.

When it comes to Musk knowing what’s best for Ukrainians, I suggest he pick up a phone and ask what they think, or better yet visit. The response to his assertions would be incredulity.

To begin with, the big-ticket items that the US supplies and the Ukrainians are now running out of include air-defense and artillery ammunition. The first is vital for shooting down the daily barrages of missiles that Russia fires at Ukraine’s cities. The second is how you suppress the other side’s artillery on the battlefield, saving your soldiers’ lives. So, stopping aid won’t save Ukrainian lives. On the contrary, it’s already costing them.

Most insidious, though, is the proposition that Russia can’t lose. First, who is Elon Musk to say? The Pentagon, Kremlin and virtually every non-Ukrainian military analyst got that wrong at the start of the war. Yes, Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive failed, and yes, the Russians have rearmed, yet wars are rarely linear. The situation is dire for Ukraine now, not because the Russians are invincible, but because — encouraged by people like Musk — US Republicans are blocking their resupply with weapons.

Whatever President Zelenskiy has to say politically, his military advisers and generals have a theory of victory that presumes some territorial loss. The strategy is to press Russia until Putin understands he can gain nothing more by continuing, and risks ending up in a weaker position if he does. A desperate, outgunned Ukrainian defense in the summer of 2022 wore down the attacking Russian force to exhaustion, allowing a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, in the fall.

From the Ukrainian point of view, their country is now back in a defensive phase of the war. They have at the same time driven Russia’s Black Sea fleet from Crimea (destroying yet another major vessel this week), which has allowed them to reopen sea exports for Ukrainian grain. Now they’re starting to ramp up their own development and production of ammunition, missiles and drones. But that will take time.

Defense need not end in defeat, and wars aren’t just a balance sheet of resources. If they were, Putin’s army would by now be spending a second year in Kyiv, Hitler would have made it to London and neither the Soviet Union nor the US would have been forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. Without the means to mount an effective defense, though, it is Ukrainians who will be exhausted and attritted this time, vulnerable not to an acceptable peace deal, but to a Russian breakthrough.

I know Ukrainians would be delighted to explain to Musk why they want to keep fighting. If he wants to be involved in deciding the fate of their nation, the least he can do is ask them.

Published 15 February 2024, 03:31 IST

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