Russia increasingly blocks Ukraine's Starlink service

Shortly before Russian troops crossed Ukraine's northern border this month, members of Ukraine's 92nd Assault Brigade lost a vital asset. The Starlink satellite internet service, which soldiers use to communicate, gather intelligence and conduct drone strikes, had slowed to a crawl.

Operated by Elon Musk's SpaceX, Starlink has been crucial to the Ukrainian military since the early days of the war with Russia. Without full service, the Ukrainian soldiers said, they could not quickly communicate and share information about the surprise assault and resorted to sending text messages. Their experiences were repeated along the new northern front line, according to Ukrainian soldiers, officials and electronic warfare experts.

At the heart of the disruptions: increased interference from Russia.

As Russian troops gained ground this month near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, they deployed more powerful electronic weapons and more sophisticated tools to degrade Starlink service, Ukrainian officials said. The advances pose a grave threat to Ukraine, which has often managed to defeat the Russian military with the help of front-line connectivity and other technologies but has remained on the defensive against the renewed Russian advance.

The new outages appear to have been the first time the Russians have caused widespread Starlink outages. If they continue to succeed, this could mark a tactical shift in the conflict, highlighting Ukraine's vulnerability and dependence on the service provided by Musk's company. As the United States and other governments collaborate with SpaceX, the outages raise broader questions about Starlink's reliability against a technically sophisticated adversary.

Starlink works by transmitting an Internet connection from satellites circling the Earth. Signals are received on the ground by pizza box-sized terminal dishes, which then distribute the connection like a Wi-Fi router to nearby laptops, phones and other devices. Starlink has provided Ukraine with vital internet service since 2022, with soldiers relying on it to guide internet-connected drones that are used for surveillance and as weapons, among other tasks.

In an interview this week, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's digital minister, said Russia's recent attacks against Starlink appear to use new, more advanced technology. The service has previously resisted interference very well on battlefields, where widespread electronic conflicts, radio jamming and other communications disruptions have occurred.

But the Russians are now “testing different mechanisms to destroy the quality of Starlink connections because it is so important to us,” Fedorov said, without providing details on what he called their “powerful” electronic weapons systems. Ukraine has been in constant contact with SpaceX to resolve the issues, he added.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. An official leading Russia's electronic warfare efforts told state media last month that the military had placed Starlink on a “target list” and developed capabilities to counter the service.

Although Fedorov said Starlink service should improve soon, some outages appear to be linked to the Russian attacks, according to soldiers and officials. Any disruption at critical moments on the battlefield puts the already stretched Ukrainian army at a further disadvantage, they said.

“We are losing the battle against electronic warfare,” said Ajax, the callsign of the deputy commander of the 92nd Attack Drone Battalion Achilles, who in an interview described the challenges his troops faced after the failure of the Starlink connectivity.

“One day before the attacks, it simply closed its doors,” said Ajax, who will only be quoted on condition that he be named by his name, in line with Ukrainian military policy. “He got super, super slow.”

The disruptions put the entire unit at a disadvantage, a drone pilot with the call sign Kartel said. During the first armored attacks of the Russian offensive this month, he said, he was in a garage without food or a sleeping bag. His team began launching drone strikes but was hampered by connection problems with Starlink. Communication became so slow that soldiers had to use text messages sent through chat apps, he said, and even then it took a while for the messages to be sent.

“During the first hours the front line was very dynamic. The enemy was moving. And we were moving too,” she said. “We needed to be quick in communication.”

For three days, he said, the unit held off the Russians, but not without difficulty. “It made everything more complicated,” she said. “Everything took longer.”

Kari A. Bingen, a former U.S. Department of Defense official and electronic warfare expert, said Starlink and other satellite communications could be disrupted by the use of a high-powered radio frequency to overwhelm connecting links. Stealth attacks are generally carried out from a vehicle with a large radio tower attached to the top, she said.

“It is naturally in the sights of Russian forces,” said Ms. Bingen, now director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “It degrades the ability of Ukrainian forces to communicate on the battlefield.”

Explanations for Starlink outages in Ukraine over the past year vary. Several experts said Russia has gotten better at interfering with the signal between satellites and Starlink terminals on the ground using powerful and precise jammers. Others suggested that the service had been disrupted by specialized electronic weapons mounted on drones, which can scramble GPS signals from Starlink, the global positioning system used to help track satellites.

Sharp increases in Starlink usage can also degrade service. In some cases, technical restrictions intended to prevent Russian forces from using Starlink have harmed the service of front-line Ukrainian soldiers. Other times, outages can be more random, like earlier this month when SpaceX reported service issues around the world due to solar storms.

During the conflict, Ukrainian forces tried various techniques to protect Starlink from attacks, including placing the terminals in holes dug in the ground and covering them with wire mesh. Infozahyst, a Ukrainian company that works with the military and specializes in building electronic warfare tools, said it does not believe such improvised solutions are effective.

Starlink has given Musk enormous leverage in the war because it controls where satellite service is available and can choose to cut off access to it. In some cases, Ukrainian officials have directly appealed to Musk to activate Starlink access during military operations so they can conduct drone strikes through enemy lines – requests the billionaire has not always approved. The US government was sometimes involved in the negotiations, which purchased Starlink terminals for Ukraine.

Starlink is not sold directly in Russia. But this year, Ukrainian officials publicly raised the alarm that Russia was using Starlink terminals purchased from third-party vendors, potentially undermining Ukraine's connectivity advantage.

Experts have warned that Ukraine is overly dependent on a single company for such a vital resource, especially one run by someone as unpredictable as Musk. But Ukraine's dependence on Starlink is unlikely to decrease. There are few alternatives for such a complete and reliable service.

Fedorov said the Ukrainian government is constantly testing new systems. The military has specialized systems for maritime drones that have destroyed numerous Russian ships in the Black Sea, he said.

“But obviously there is no mass-produced equivalent,” he said.

For Ajax, the Ukrainian commander, the loss of Starlink service brought back bad memories of the war. When he fought near the Russian border in 2022, his unit was sometimes cut off from Starlink, disrupting video feeds from drones used to target artillery remotely. In its place, the unit deployed soldiers to covertly survey enemy positions and direct attacks.

“It's become the old way with radios,” he said. “We had to say, 'Move left 100 feet.' It was really strange.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reports from Kiev, Ukraine, and Olha Kotiuzhanska from Kharkiv and Kramatorsk.

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