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Starlink Terminals Are Falling Into the Hands of the Russian Military

  • Ukrainian military heavily depends on Starlink for stable communications between units and commanders.
  • Evidence suggests that Russian troops are using Starlink for their own communications or potentially to monitor Ukraine's.
  • Despite claims by Starlink that they don't sell terminals to Russia, reports indicate Russian troops may have acquired them through various channels, raising concerns about security breaches and compromised military communications.
Space

Russian troops in Ukraine increasingly have access to Starlink, the private satellite Internet network owned by Elon Musk that Ukraine's military relies on heavily for battlefield communications.

The findings from RFE/RL's Russian Service corroborate earlier statements from Ukrainian military officials, underscoring how Kyiv's ability to secure its command communications is potentially threatened.

It comes as Ukrainian forces grapple with depleted weaponry and ammunition, and overall exhaustion, with Russian forces pressing localized offensives in several locations along the 1,200-kilometer front line. The industrial city of Avdiyivka, in particular, is under severe strain with Russian forces making steady advances, threatening to encircle Ukrainian defenses there.

Ukraine has relied heavily on Starlink, a network for low-orbit satellites that provide high-speed Internet access. The network is owned by SpaceX, the private space company that is in turn owned by Musk, the American billionaire entrepreneur.

They are used on the front line primarily for stable communications between units, medics, and commanders. Ukrainian troops have also experimented with installing Starlink antennas on large attack drones, which are an essential tool for Ukrainian troops but are frequently jammed by Russian electronic-warfare systems.

However, a growing number of Ukrainian military sources and civilian activists have pointed to evidence that Russian troops are using the network, either for their own communications or to potentially monitor Ukraine's.

On February 11, Ukraine's military intelligence service, known as HUR, said Russian forces were not only using Starlink terminals but also doing it in a "systemic" way. HUR also published an audio excerpt of what it said was an intercepted exchange between two Russian soldiers discussing how to set up the terminals.

Units like Russia's 83rd Air Assault Brigade, which is fighting in the partially occupied eastern region of Donetsk, are reportedly using the system, HUR spokesman Andriy Yusov was quoted as saying.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said on February 13 that Russia was acquiring Starlink terminals from unnamed Arab countries.

Starlink has said that it does not do business with Russia's government or its military, and Musk himself published a statement on his social-media company X, formerly Twitter, in response to the Ukrainian assertions.

"A number of false news reports claim that SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia. This is categorically false. To the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia," Musk wrote on February 11.

Russian troops may have acquired Starlink terminals from one of potentially dozens of companies within Russia that claim to sell them alongside household products, RFE/RL found.

One Russian website, called Topmachines.ru, advertised a Starlink set for 220,000 rubles (about $2,200), and a $100 monthly subscription fee.

Starlink appears to have lax oversight on the type of personal data used by new Starlink clients when they register for the first time, as well.

One Moscow-based reseller told RFE/RL that new accounts were registered with random European first and last names and that there is no need to enter a valid European passport. The only important thing, the vendor said, is to have a valid bank card that uses one of the main international payment systems.

Another vendor told RFE/RL that the terminals he sold were brought in from Europe, though he declined to specify which country. The vendor said a terminal costs 250,000 rubles (about $2,400), and the monthly fee was 14,000 rubles.

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Additionally, Starlink's technology appears to be incapable of precisely restricting signal access; independent researchers say Starlink's system only knows the approximate location of its terminals, meaning it would have to restrict access for Ukrainian frontline positions in order to limit Russian battlefield use.

IStories, an independent Russian news outlet, also identified at least three vendors in Moscow who claim to sell Starlink terminals.

Asked by reporters whether Russian troops might be using Starlink terminals, Peskov said: "This is not a certified system with us, therefore, it cannot be supplied and is not supplied officially. Accordingly, we cannot use it officially in any way."

By RFE/RL

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