Even before he made a bid to buy Twitter, Elon Musk was an avid user of the site. It is a reason Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov took to the social media platform to prod the SpaceX CEO to activate Starlink, a SpaceX division that provides satellite Internet, to help his country in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion. “While you try to colonize Mars—Russia try [sic] to occupy Ukraine!” Fedorov wrote on February 26. “We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations.”
“Starlink service is now active in Ukraine,” Musk tweeted that same day. This was a coup for Ukraine: it facilitated Ukrainian communications in the conflict. Starlink later helped fend off Russian jamming attacks against its service to Ukraine with a quick and relatively simple code update. Now, however, Musk has gone back and forth on whether the company will continue funding the Starlink satellite service that has kept Ukraine and its military online during the war.
The tensions and uncertainty Musk is injecting into the war effort demonstrate the challenges that can emerge when companies play a key role in military conflict. Technology companies ranging from Microsoft to Silicon Valley startups have provided cyberdefense, surveillance, and reconnaissance services—not by direction of a government contract or even as a part of a government plan but instead through the independent decision-making of individual companies. These companies’ efforts have rightly garnered respect and recognition; their involvement, after all, were often pro bono and could have provoked Russian attacks on their networks, or even their people, in retaliation.
But this is new territory for U.S. companies and for the U.S. government. The Biden administration must now figure out how to harness the power and willingness of these companies in ways that will help, and not harm, strategic interests going forward. To do that, policymakers should carefully consider why companies are getting involved and what the government can do to more meaningfully partner with them to serve U.S. foreign policy interests.
U.S. businesses have a long history of working with the U.S. government in the midst of war. During World War II, Ford Motor Company repurposed its assembly lines to build equipment needed by the military, such as vehicles, aircraft engines, and even the B-24 bomber. More recently, service contractors such as Kellogg, Brown, and Root built and staffed bases, providing logistical support in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these companies were contracted by the U.S. government for those services. That is not the case for many of the tech companies operating in Ukraine.
Companies both small and large, private and public, have supported Ukraine’s military operations. Planet, Capella Space, and Maxar technologies—all satellite companies—have supplied imagery helpful to the Ukrainian government and its cause. The imagery has done everything from inform ground operations to mobilize global opinion, thanks to the publicity garnered on Twitter and prominent news outlets. Primer.AI, a Silicon Valley startup, quickly modified its suite of tools to analyze news and social media, as well as to capture, translate, and analyze unencrypted Russian military leaders’ voice communications. Even Clearview AI, a New York–based startup focused mostly on law enforcement in the United States, volunteered its facial recognition services to aid Ukrainian officials in countering disinformation and to help identify victims and war criminals.
Microsoft has played a particularly active role, announcing the launch of new teams to work “around the clock” to defend Ukrainian organizations and government agencies from “an onslaught of cyberwarfare.” It has protected against attacks on critical infrastructure, which run on Microsoft products. Microsoft even went so far as to take legal and technical measures to remove Internet launching points Russians were using for their attacks. In April, Microsoft published its own intelligence report, attributing specific attacks to Russian units and constructing a detailed timeline of events, ahead of U.S. Cyber Command’s announcement in July.
For many companies, quarterly investor reports referenced support for Ukraine as part of ESG programs.
Market considerations were one reason these companies got involved. All had some past or future business planned with the U.S. government. A desire to remain on good terms could have influenced their decisions to engage in a conflict where the Biden administration has a stated national security interest. A company such as Microsoft also has an economic incentive to defend the integrity of its products. By identifying and eliminating vulnerabilities exploited by the Russians, Microsoft improved the security of its systems writ large.
Corporate branding played a role too. Companies made online posts about their involvement, released reports about Russian cyber-activities, and posted social media messages and press releases. Quarterly investor reports also referenced support for Ukraine as part of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs. Maxar’s satellite imagery of Ukraine was provided free to news agencies as part of its “Data Philanthropy” effort.
Some company leaders appear to have been key to spearheading support to Ukraine. Microsoft President Brad Smith has long affirmed his conviction in protecting the “subtle and sensitive” barrier “between freedom and its opposite, totalitarianism.” Sean Gourley, the founder of Primer.AI, has a history of working with the U.S. government on national security issues and has former government executives on his board. And, of course, Musk’s rapid responses on Twitter give reason to believe that he personally drives his company’s decision to engage.
LEFT HAND TALK TO RIGHT HAND
These technology companies’ efforts have been laudable and, in most cases, are aligned with the U.S. government’s work on Ukraine. But the U.S. government now needs to build relationships and a plan for coordination in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine and before another crisis emerges elsewhere. Initially, these engagements should be at senior levels because decisions are being made and driven by the top. Frequent informal exchanges would help national security leaders gain an appreciation of the impact of and potential responses to corporate-specific challenges, such as threats to overseas infrastructure or employees. Ideally, over time, government and industry partners could form close working relationships at senior and middle levels that government leaders could more readily use to anticipate corporate actions and to coordinate in the midst of a crisis.
These relationships could also help government officials understand and anticipate the capabilities that an adversary’s corporations could bring to a conflict since tech companies are often more aware of the threat posed by competitors. And continuous interaction will help to establish communication pipelines for the unanticipated challenges inevitable in future conflicts.
Such public-private communication and collaboration on national security issues is not unprecedented. For example, since 2015, U.S. Space Command has established four commercial integration cells and has been open about the relevance of the commercial space industry to military space domain awareness and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. Currently, nine U.S. space companies are members, including Maxar Technologies. Similarly, commercial cyberspace companies have been engaging with each other and the government since the establishment of Information Sharing and Analysis Centers in 2003. Although these centers were set up to share information about threats to U.S. critical infrastructure, they provide an excellent model for the exchange of sensitive or national security information in the midst of crisis and combat operations.
The Ukrainian military has become dependent on technology and, therefore, on Elon Musk’s decisions.
A key objective of these partnerships should be the ability to anticipate and coordinate when a tech company will engage in a conflict and when it will not. Government and industry leaders must discuss what happens when market forces and international relationships could lead to very different corporate decisions. Take, for example, a potential conflict with China. American companies are unlikely to abandon the democratic principles that enabled their rise, but their decisions to act may be more constrained by significant infrastructure, financial, or personnel investments in China. If the government were to begin to depend on tech companies for certain capabilities and find them to be unreliable, the United States could be caught short during a crisis. Understanding the needs and constraints on both sides, well in advance, could help avoid misunderstandings and missteps.
This issue, of course, is now playing out with Starlink. The Ukrainian military has become dependent on technology and, therefore, dependent on Musk’s decisions. Musk has decided not to support Ukraine’s request to activate Starlink in Crimea, and Starlink services have been recently unreliable in Ukraine, especially in areas controlled by Russia. It also appears as though Musk has asked the Pentagon to pick up funding for Starlink in Ukraine, although he currently says he will continue funding Starlink. His request for funding could be a business decision. His decision on where and where not to activate Starlink is reportedly based on his personal assessment of the risk of Russian escalation. A private company is deciding all of this, independent of government policies or objectives.
These events in Ukraine should serve as a call to action for government leaders. Tech companies have demonstrated how businesses can support military and security operations as well as their independent power and willingness to act. Now is the time to reach out to tech company leaders and initiate substantive and continuing conversations about these companies’ abilities and plans. The relationships built may be a game-changer for current and future conflicts.