There’s Elon Musk, the second most dangerous thing known to humanity

A new book claims Musk ordered internet access to be turned off to disrupt a Ukrainian attack on Russian naval fleet. He says he just refused to turn on the internet in Crimea

If you find yourself in the right place on the right night in August each year, the Perseid meteor shower is an awesome sight. There is something humbling about knowing that this firework display is caused by a trail of dust the Swift-Tuttle comet released in 68 BC. It has been described as “the single most dangerous object known to humanity”, and is due come within a hair-raising 22.9 million km of Earth on August 5th, 2126.

This year, on August 14th, the night its activity peaks as the Earth barrels right into the debris field, I stretched out on a sun lounger in a medieval mountainside village in northern Tuscany. In between the thrilling flares streaking across the sky, we noticed something else: tiny balls of yellow marching in gridlike formation over the skies, like glowing orbital ants. Ah, I thought, there’s the second most dangerous thing known to humanity. There’s Elon Musk.

While the media was preoccupied with his antics at Twitter/X, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has been launching small satellites into space on a weekly basis as a way of providing low-cost internet to remote parts of the world. As of this week, the number of Musk-owned Starlink satellites still in low-Earth obit was 4,015, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell who tracks them. That is more than half of the total number of satellites in space. Musk plans to eventually reach 42,000 satellites orbiting Earth in a megaconstellation – a glorious metaphor for his power and ego glittering in the sky.

The satellites I could see in the clear dark skies over the Apennines are flying internet terminals, each one 800kg and roughly the size of a sofa, orbiting 550km above Earth, according to the New York Times. You can track their progress online: in the time it has taken me to type this sentence, Musk’s Starlink 4753 passed somewhere 544.5km overhead and travelled east over Wexford to Wales.


These satellites have kept Ukraine in internet access since the start of the war. Its army, businesses, hospitals and aid organisations depend on Musk for internet access. This is, on the face of it, a good thing. “The huge number of lives that Starlink has helped save can be measured in the thousands,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, told the New York Times.

We are accustomed to the world’s richest people doing things that might strike the rest of us as outside of their swim lane – the Collison Brothers are part of a consortium investing in a new city north of San Francisco. Mark Zuckerberg has taken up cage fighting. Sometimes these efforts can be useful, such as Bono procuring personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Useful” is one way of characterising Elon Musk supplying internet access to war-torn Ukraine. “Deeply worrying” is another.

A measure of Musk’s outsize influence on the Ukraine war features in an extraordinary article in the New Yorker by journalist Ronan Farrow. As part of his research, Farrow spoke to Colin Kahl, then the under-secretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon. “Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had.” (You can’t help feeling that “technically” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.)

Kahl arranged a meeting with Musk, because officials were starting to get a little spooked that he “could turn [access to the internet in Ukraine] off at any given moment”. As anyone who has been following Musk’s adventures with the social media site formerly known as Twitter might say: well, quite. As another unnamed Pentagon official put it, bluntly, to Farrow: “We are living off his good graces… that sucks.”

A new biography of 52-year-old Musk by Walter Isaacson claims that Musk did indeed order his engineers to turn off the Starlink satellite communications network near the Crimean coast last year to disrupt a Ukrainian submarine attack on the Russian naval fleet.

Musk responded on Thursday to say he hadn’t disabled the service; he had just refused to comply with an emergency request from Ukrainian officials to enable it in occupied Crimea. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war,” he said.

There are examples of private individuals of enormous wealth and influence becoming embroiled in global geopolitics. But never before on this scale, never to the extent that they become actors in a prolonged conflict. And they are not, to put it bluntly, Musk, who is known to be impulsive, capricious, narcissistic and unpredictable.

He has spent the last few years not just throwing tantrums on social media, but also fostering links with China and dabbling in artificial intelligence. “Between, Tesla, Starlink & Twitter, I may have more real-time global economic data in one head than anyone ever,” he tweeted in April, a statement whose truth is hard the argue with.

One of the things that is most concerning US officials, Farrow reports, are Musk’s links to China, which has a “no limits” partnership with Russia. Half of Tesla cars are manufactured in a facility in Shanghai. In October 2022, shortly after having a conversation with Putin, Musk tweeted a poll asking for input on his own peace plan, involving giving Russia control of Crimea.

Weirdly, much of the world’s media still insists on treating Musk as an essentially comic figure – the richest person on the planet and one of its most powerful, yes, but mostly a vainglorious, petulant, socially awkward oaf. It’s perhaps worth remembering that the last vainglorious, petulant, socially awkward oaf who wasn’t taken that seriously ended up in the White House. Unfortunately, Musk’s plans seem much loftier than that.