Tech giants occupy central roles in Russia’s war on Ukraine and in geopolitical dynamics beyond. The loudest of these CEOs, the entrepreneurial ‘genius’ Elon Musk, has enthusiastically embraced this role, attracting considerable attention for his opining on the conflict. Much of the recent drama revolved around a conversation with Vladimir Putin – which Musk vehemently denies having – closely followed by the entrepreneur conducting a twitter poll on his very own ideas to bring the war to an end. These ideas did not involve Ukraine regaining its territorial integrity. Needless to say, the poll prompted a furious response from the governments of Ukraine and its Western allies, while receiving praise from the Kremlin.
Some media coverage of this incident and Musk’s role in supplying internet terminals to Ukraine went as far as suggesting he could determine the outcome of the war. Since March, Musk has supplied thousands of SpaceX Starlink satellite internet terminals for Ukraine. These terminals have proved vital for both Ukraine’s government to conduct its communication campaign and for the country’s military, which uses them to transmit intelligence and conduct drone attacks. But, following Musk’s alleged conversation with Putin, Ukrainian frontline troops reported drastic outages of the Starlink system. Musk also threatened to stop funding Starlink in Ukraine, before later backtracking.
But how decisive could Musk’s role really be in this war? And how can the West prevent him becoming a geopolitical wildcard? Indeed, given today’s geopolitical dynamics, these questions equally apply to the roles and interests of all global tech giants, and their juggernaut CEOs.
Tech giants’ role in Russia’s war
SpaceX was not the first tech company to play a crucial role in this war. Just hours before Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Centre detected a new type of detrimental malware – dubbed FoxBlade – designed to wipe the data off Ukrainian government and financial institutions’ computer systems. Microsoft quickly rendered the malware harmless, informed the Ukrainian authorities, and contacted the White House to decide on additional measures. Had it not been for Microsoft, the Ukrainian government would have been severely inhibited in coordinating its response to Russia’s hybrid attack. Moreover, the malware could have easily spread across the systems of Ukraine’s European allies.
Similarly, American digital platforms have become the central battleground of Russia’s information war. In Europe and the US, but also in the so-called global south, the willingness and ability of Meta, Twitter, TikTok and the like to identify and limit the Kremlin’s global disinformation campaigns – whether on the causes of rising food prices or who is to blame for the war – shape sentiments towards and responses to the war. These digital platforms and their policies are hence a critical geopolitical vector.
Of course, private companies were decisive geopolitical forces long before the 21st century. The rapid transformation of Ford’s production from autos to building bombers and tanks during WWII and the East India Company as a crucial agent of British imperialism are just two examples. Even so, these companies’ reach has never transcended borders as rapidly and comprehensively as it does in today’s interconnected world. Yet, although downplaying the role of tech giants in today’s geopolitics could be ill-advised, overestimating it would be equally unhelpful. Musk’s supposedly decisive role in Ukraine’s successes due to Starlink is a good example of this need for nuance.
So, what if Musk decided to stop providing Starlink to Ukraine? Or worse, to provide the technology to Russia instead?
The answer to the second question is quite simple: he couldn’t. The West’s far-reaching technological sanctions on Russia prohibit the export of almost any good that could end up with the Russian (or Belarusian) military. It does not matter if these are Starlink internet terminals, microchips, pencils, or toothbrushes.
As for cutting off Starlink to Ukraine for economic reasons, Musk seems to exaggerate his company’s role in funding these services: 85 per cent of the terminals and 30 per cent of the connectivity costs are covered by countries like the US and Poland, or via crowdfunding campaigns and private donations. But the exaggeration of his role means that he would face a huge backlash if he did withdraw funding – one from which he has already shied away. It therefore seems that Musk is using his and Starlink’s role in the conflict to generate attention: both to market his company and to stroke his ego.
What the West and the EU should do
Musk should not have been left to make the decision to supply Ukraine with Starlink in the first place. Western governments need to purchase and provide such technologies for their allies themselves. This means either building comprehensive partnerships with trusted private companies – and alternatives to Starlink do exist – or developing public solutions. Just before Russia’s full-scale invasion, for example, the EU set out plans for its own satellite-based connectivity system. It should develop this system not only to secure communications and to protect critical infrastructure within the union but also to provide uninterrupted internet access to allies in conflict situations.
Furthermore, there is work ahead for policymakers to ensure that powerful private sector actors do not undermine their objectives and that sanctions regimes are fit for the 21st century. Admittedly, the West’s tech sanctions against Russia are having drastic effects on its economy and military-industrial complex: inflation stands at more than 50 per cent in the technology sector; microchips meant for refrigerators and dishwashers are being discovered in Russian drones; two of Russia’s large armoured-vehicle manufacturers have had to idle production; and Russian hypersonic ballistic missile production has practically halted due to a lack of foreign components. Yet, Russia is still illicitly procuring Western tech components for its war machine.
The US, Europe, and their partners need to make a bigger effort to combat sanctions evasion, and pile pressure on the private sector to do the same. This is necessary now during the current war and may be even more so in future conflicts. The hardware most essential to military power, such as microchips and advanced sensors, is becoming ever smaller – meaning its trade flows are harder to oversee. But not only that, export control regimes and enforcement will also need to rise to the complex security challenges of the digital age, in which software including Artificial Intelligence will increasingly determine military strength.
The apparently well-functioning coordination between Microsoft, the Ukrainian authorities, the White House, and European governments during the FoxBlade incident shows how important private sector commitments and public-private cooperation can be in securing cyber-space. It is crucial, however, that this cooperation extends beyond responses to cyber-incidents to be of a continuous and forward-looking nature. Government and private sector representatives will need to jointly analyse geopolitical dynamics and cooperatively develop approaches to address potential threats before they arise. This is why the EU should swiftly institutionalise a public-private platform for information sharing, threat analysis, and operational and technical cooperation – as envisioned for the EU Joint Cyber Unit. Furthermore, the EU should – like the US – work towards fully integrating its currently separated cyber diplomacy and digital diplomacy structures. In hybrid conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns are often deployed in tandem – so the means to address them should work in tandem as well.
At a time of increasing weaponisation of digital technologies in geopolitical conflicts, governments need to better understand the interests and roles of tech companies in geopolitical developments. For their part, tech companies should develop a better understanding and greater sense of responsibility with regard to their own role in geopolitics. China, of course, has developed its own model to ensure public-private alignment – with government officials generally siting on companies’ executive boards and officials assigned to ‘oversee’ leading tech companies.
Clearly, that is not a model for the West. Instead, Western governments should seek to establish broad and dynamic multi-stakeholder platforms and tools for continuous public-private engagement in geo-tech matters. ECFR recently organised a comprehensive workshop to facilitate such public-private cooperation in digital diplomacy with representatives from government, the private sector, and civil society. The feedback from the participants was that in a time of geopolitical and digital upheaval, such engagements are essential and need to occur on a regular basis. Musk, for his part, seems to need convincing that Twitter is not the ultimate platform to resolve geopolitical issues. Perhaps next time he should come along.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.