What happened to Elon Musk this past week showcases how completely unhinged and dangerous U.S. policy to Ukraine has become.
The condemnation began when the Washington Post published excerpts from a new biography on Musk revealing that he turned down a Ukrainian request to help launch a major sneak attack in September 2022 on the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
There were numerous, legitimate reasons why Musk refused to activate his Starlink internet services for Ukraine to carry out the unprecedented, surprise attack on Russian naval vessels: Musk was providing terminals to Ukraine for free; he was not on a military contract at that time; the late-night request came directly from the Ukrainian—not American—government; and Starlink had never been activated over Crimea because of U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Most importantly, Musk was concerned that enabling the attack could result in serious “conflict escalation.” He worried that he was being asked to turn on Starlink for a “Pearl Harbor like attack” and had no wish to “proactively take part in a major act of war,” possibly provoking a Russian nuclear response.
In response to this nuclear aversion, Musk was called “evil” by a high-level Ukrainian official and “traitor” by American war enthusiasts.
Rachel Maddow on the Russia conspiracy network MSNBC said Musk was “intervening to try to stop Ukraine from winning the war.” Not to be outdone, CNN‘s Jake Tapper described Elon as a “capricious billionaire” who “sabotaged a military operation by Ukraine, a U.S. ally,” an act that demands “repercussions.” For his part, chief Iraq war salesman-turned-Democrat-darling, David Frum, said that Musk must be stripped of his U.S. government contracts for not reflexively acceding to the Ukrainian Starlink request, and former “progressive,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, called for an immediate Congressional investigation “to ensure foreign policy is conducted by the government and not by one billionaire.”
‼️ @SenWarren demands an investigation into SpaceX after Musk blocked Ukraine from extending the Starlink network near Crimea.
“The Congress needs to investigate whether we have adequate tools to ensure foreign policy is conducted by the government and not by one billionaire”. pic.twitter.com/p3I19Yk851
— Ostap Yarysh (@OstapYarysh) September 12, 2023
But the Musk pile-on was just getting started. In the days that followed, his detractors used a Ukrainian operation as proof that Musk was overreacting. Days after the Starlink story broke, Ukraine successfully launched British Storm Shadow cruise missiles into the Russian naval headquarters in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. It was the largest attack since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly 19 months ago, and it damaged a Russian submarine and warship.
When the military action was not followed by World War III, Musk was torched again. As the pro-war media noted, “It was precisely such a strike, according to Musk, that should have provoked a nuclear war.” A torrent of international relations pundits on Twitter mocked Musk, tweeting things like “I was assured by an internet service provider executive that this would have caused WWIII and the use of nuclear weapons” and “How’s it going man, after the splendid attack on Sevastopol? WW3 started already?”
Musk’s detractors might think this is all very funny, but attacking Crimea—not to mention the Russian mainland in increasingly frequent drone strikes on Moscow—is no laughing matter. Even the staunchest Western war enthusiasts from the NATO-aligned Atlantic Council to the Estonian defense minister to Biden’s own Secretary of State Antony Blinken all previously acknowledged that threatening Crimea is a possible “red line” that could lead to nuclear war.
As the Russian military specialist Nicolo Fasola pointed out in April, “There’s a definite risk that Putin would use nuclear weapons to counter a Ukrainian offensive in Crimea. And that’s why Ukraine’s Western allies are reluctant.”
But that previous caution has faded—no doubt as a result of the much-touted counteroffensive disappointing American war planners, leading to a seemingly endless and halting war of attrition reminiscent of World War I. Meanwhile, Biden’s political legacy is on the line as the presidential election looms.
The longer the war goes on, the more the Biden administration and its NATO allies are throwing caution to the wind. Biden keeps consenting to supply weapons previously ruled out as excessively escalatory, from Patriot air defense systems to Abrams tanks to cluster munitions to F-16’s. The latest reversal is over the expected transfer of Army Tactical Missile Systems that can fly up to 190 miles, enabling Ukrainian forces to strike far beyond Russia’s defensive positions inside Crimea and deep into Russian sovereign territory.
National Security advisor Jake Sullivan used to rule out ATACMS “to ensure that we don’t get into a situation in which we are approaching the Third World War.” Even CNN, an enthusiastic advocate for greater American involvement in the war, has acknowledged the “fears about escalating the conflict.”
A couple months ago, Senator James Risch of Idaho told the Aspen Security Forum, “I’m tired of hearing about escalation. I want Putin to wake up in the morning worried about what he’s going to do that’s going to cause us to escalate.” Biden apparently now agrees.
The view now ruling the Democratic Party and the President is the same as the warmongers: It’s silly to worry as Musk does about turning the Ukraine war into something catastrophically worse. It’s un-American not to try to find Russia’s redline for starting World War III. It’s traitorous to believe—as the President himself did, just a few months ago—that we should be doing all we can to prevent escalation.
The new mantra seems to be: We’re not trying hard enough in Ukraine until we feel the nuclear blast against our faces.
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Max Abrahms, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.