Elon Musk’s Fearful Encounter: How Russia Surprises the Tech Titan

One evening in September 2022, a group of Ukrainian sea drones embarked on a mission in the Black Sea to target ships stationed in Russian-occupied Crimea. However, their plan faced a setback when Starlink, the satellite-communications system used by Ukraine, suddenly stopped working. Concerned about the potential consequences, people reached out to Elon Musk, the owner of Starlink, urging him to restore the system.

Musk, alarmed by the situation, contacted his biographer, Walter Isaacson, and expressed his belief that the sea-drone attack could trigger a nuclear war. Isaacson mentioned that Musk had recently spoken with Russia’s ambassador who explicitly warned him of the dire consequences of attacking Crimea. Musk alluded to having conversations with President Vladimir Putin during that time, although he later denied it.

These details were initially reported by Oliver Carroll at The Economist in May and subsequently covered by The New Yorker. However, there is an additional aspect of the story that may have gone unnoticed. During my visit to Ukraine, I met some engineers involved in designing the sea drones, including one engineer who participated in the initial attempt to target Russian ships. They revealed that not all of the drones were lost during the operation, and some returned undamaged.

What many may not be aware of is that the same team launched a second attack a few weeks later. On October 29, a fleet of guided sea drones equipped with explosives successfully reached Sebastopol harbor, using an alternative communications system. They hit their intended targets, including the Admiral Makarov, a Russian frigate. The team believes that they also damaged at least one submarine and two other boats.

Contrary to Musk’s concerns, this sea-drone attack did not escalate into a nuclear war. The Russian naval commanders were rattled by the incident and remained cautious, limiting their movements around Sebastopol harbor in the following weeks.

To protect the security of the engineers, I will refrain from disclosing their names. I was introduced to them by a tech executive during a previous visit to Ukraine when I was exploring drone operations. These unmanned sea vehicles are continually evolving in design and capability. Some of the drones I witnessed were described as the “fifth generation.” Remarkably, controlling one felt akin to playing a video game, highlighting the advanced technology involved.

Similar to air drones, sea drones play a significant role in Ukraine’s unconventional approach to warfare. Unable to match Russia’s military strength aircraft or naval vessels, Ukraine employs small, technologically advanced, and custom-made devices to neutralize larger and pricier artillery, tanks, and ships. These devices are crafted by groups that operate outside traditional military structures but are not entirely private entities. This grassroots, networked response forms part of Ukraine’s strategy to secure victory in the war. As one engineer expressed, “This is Ukraine. We are hybrid.”

The engineers also conveyed that while their drones may not have destroyed the entire Black Sea fleet, they have made a significant impact on the war. Russian military vessels have become more cautious, refraining from physically blocking Ukrainian grain transports as anticipated by some observers. Instead, they remain in port. The engineer proudly declared, “We made them scared.” Furthermore, they confirmed their readiness to strike any Russian warship attempting to obstruct a Ukrainian grain cargo ship.

In essence, Musk’s fears turned out to be unfounded. Rather than inciting World War III, the sea-drone attack has contributed to a reduction in violence, safeguarded commerce, supported Ukrainian farmers, and potentially prevented hunger among those outside Ukraine. However, had Musk not succumbed to hubris, these positive effects could have been realized earlier. Perhaps the initial attack could have eliminated more ships responsible for civilian casualties in Ukrainian cities, resulting in fewer deaths. Consequently, the war to reclaim Ukrainian territory and bring an end to the suffering of its citizens may have been closer to conclusion.

This story serves as a cautionary tale about the audacity of a billionaire who has assumed an unpredictable role in U.S. foreign policy. It also sheds light on the deliberate dissemination of fear by Russia, aimed at shaping Western perceptions of the war. Musk is not alone in succumbing to this manipulation; many influential figures in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, and other European capitals, despite supporting Ukrainian sovereignty, have been influenced by conversations with Russian ambassadors, threats from Russian leaders, and propaganda shown on Russian state television. Musk likely encountered similar messages in Russian-influenced far-right online communities that he frequents, just as Donald Trump did in 2016 when accusing Hillary Clinton of intending to start World War III.

The Russian strategy of instilling fear is designed to deter aggression – and it works. In 2014, Western leaders advised Ukraine against fighting back when Russia invaded Crimea due to concerns about escalation. This advice led to the suffering of those arrested, imprisoned, and displaced from the peninsula. It also emboldened Russia to continue its invasion of eastern Ukraine, only halting when the Ukrainians began to fight back.

From 2014 to 2022, the United States and European nations, fearing provocation, imposed restrictions on weapons sales to Ukraine. This proved to be a grave mistake. If Ukraine’s army had been seen as a genuine threat by Russia, the full-scale invasion might never have occurred.

Even when the full-scale invasion began last year, concerns about Russian reaction deterred the U.S. and European nations from providing Ukraine with long-range weapons. However, the Ukrainians eventually used their own weapons to strike Russian targets, first near the border and later in Moscow and other cities. Once again, the world did not witness a nuclear war.

The same story applies to nearly every significant category of weaponry. Fears of escalation caused Germany and the United States, among others, to withhold necessary tanks for Ukraine’s offensive operations to regain its territory. The hesitancy to provide Ukraine with F-16s during this summer’s counteroffensive reflected the same concerns. However, tanks are now deployed, F-16 training has commenced, and there are reports that the Biden administration may equip Ukraine with ATACMS, a long-range ballistic missile system.

Each delay resulted in wasted time, which ultimately cost tens of thousands of lives. I recall being in Ukraine exactly a year ago when Ukrainian troops recaptured the cities of Izyum and Kupiansk. A few weeks later, they took back more cities. This delayed progress was tragic.


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