Elon Musk’s role as CEO of SpaceX has come under harsh scrutiny following reports that he deliberately disrupted a Ukrainian attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.
The story continues to develop, but it appears that Musk intervened to prevent a group of Ukrainian maritime drones from using Starlink communications and navigation technology to attack the Russian fleet. Some of the drones were apparently lost in the effort because of the severing of communications. According to Musk’s own account, he believed — following conversations with Russian officials — that a successful attack might spur nuclear retaliation by Russia and the escalation of the war. This accords with previous reporting about Elon’s intervention against earlier Ukrainian offensive operations. SpaceX terminals ceased operation as Ukrainian troops crossed into territory occupied by the Russians. This seemed to suggest that Musk was arrogating to himself the right to determine the extent to which Ukraine could recapture territory that Russia had conquered earlier in the war.
Musk’s personality, his politics, and the role of SpaceX in the U.S. defense industrial complex now sit at the center of a complicated set of questions about the extent to which U.S. national security policy should be made to rest upon the whims of mercurial titans of industry.
Elon the Right Wing Crank?
One alarming possibility is that Musk’s increasingly evident alt-right sympathies have pushed him in the direction of covert support for the Putin regime, widely beloved of authoritarian rightists around the world. Many of the figures that Musk publicly associates with (including his henchman David Sacks) have grown increasingly pro-Russia over the last few months. Most recently, Musk has virtually declared war on the Anti-Defamation League, accusing the organization of trying to destroy the advertising base of X. It is not inconceivable that Musk, ever more angry about “wokeness,” has developed a degree of appreciation for Vladimir Putin’s traditionalist, illiberal Russian regime.
Much of this appears to involve an increasing fascination with authoritarianism. Like Donald Trump, Musk has expressed frustration with the democratic decision-making process, especially as regards regulation. Like Trump, Musk appears to believe that he can develop a personal relationship with authoritarian leaders that will allow him to cut deals, notwithstanding the realities of geopolitics. And like many figures on the alt-right, there seems to be some evidence that Musk was radicalized by the limited lockdowns practiced by the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, we need to keep in mind that Musk’s SpaceX has enabled Ukrainian military operations for most of the war. SpaceX’s communications and surveillance capabilities have offered Ukraine a critical advantage, one that Russia could neither replicate, nor defeat. If ideology is the problem, it hasn’t actually stopped Musk from supplying Ukraine with the capabilities it needs to fight the war.
The parallels with Henry Ford are too obvious to ignore. Ford was a committed and virulent anti-semite who expressed, from time to time, considerable sympathy for Imperial Germany in the First World War and Nazi Germany in the Second. However, Ford also turned over the substantial industrial capacity of the Ford Motor Company to the war effort, eventually producing thousands of the bombers that would destroy urban Germany and Japan.
Elon the Idiot?
An alternative (or complementary) explanation is that Musk is deeply ignorant of international affairs and of war. He has never taken the time to study these affairs in depth and is generally unsuited to instruction in questions of social science. He has no idea of the dynamics of escalation in conflict and is likely to believe whatever he is told, especially if the source is “edgy.”
Some have argued that it is impossible for anyone to be stupid enough to believe Russian officials when they claim that an attack on Sevastopol would produce nuclear war. While it is true that this is an almost shockingly stupid thing for a person to believe, Musk fancies himself to be a self-made billionaire who succeeded because he believed in a great many unreasonable and absurd things. Ronan Farrow’s recent portrait of Musk is somewhat unflattering on personal terms, and it is quite alarming in policy terms. Farrow also suggested Musk has abused a variety of legal and illegal drugs, although this hardly puts him in unusual company.
To offer just one example, the claim that “we will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3” requires an understanding of the dynamics of escalation in a conflict, and of why a nation might resort to steps that would produce “World War III.” There is not the faintest indication that Musk has studied any of these things or has any idea what the words mean.
To point out the obvious, Russian officials probably are not the most reliable sources available on the question of how Russia would respond to a conventional attack on a Russian military installation. This is so intuitively obvious that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could fail to understand it. But Musk — like many titans of industry — tends to believe that if he believes a thing, then it must be true.
Musk’s proposed peace plan, involving referenda in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, was roundly ridiculed by diplomatic professionals as naïve and unworkable. Musk did not understand that it was naïve and unworkable, because he has no grip on the long history of difficulties associated with developing, managing, and executing referenda under terms of occupation.
“If I believe it, it must be true,” is a strange twist on the old Nixonian idea “it’s not illegal if the president does it,” but it’s hardly unusual for titans of industry to believe absurd things. The largely apolitical personal eccentricities of Howard Hughes certainly affected the willingness of the U.S. government to work with his company during and after World War II, but the upside of being incredibly rich is that no one will tell you to your face that you’re ignorant or insane.
Should the U.S. Nationalize SpaceX?
Evidently, there is a disconnect between how Elon Musk understands the war in Ukraine and how the U.S. government understands it. However, the current predicament that the United States and Ukraine find themselves in regarding Musk is a consequence of a decision to leave much space infrastructure investment to the private sector. This was and is a defensible decision. Government innovation in this sector had atrophied, and it made sense to open the opportunity for private money to make an impact. SpaceX hasn’t quite singlehandedly transformed the nature of space-based combat capabilities, but it has certainly changed the terms of the game. But even if we grant that opening space up for private exploration has been broadly successful, concentrating space capabilities in a single company under a mercurial leader is surely far from optimal.
Does this mean that the solution is for the U.S. to nationalize SpaceX? For better or worse the United States has long relied on privately owned firms to manage its defense industrial base, part of a unique and long-standing relationship between government and industry that has characterized America’s unique defense industrial base. Nationalizing SpaceX might feel satisfying, but it would carry long-term risks, both for the company itself and for the broader set of relationships between the U.S. government and major defense providers.
We can grant the point that Musk’s assessment of risks is different from that of the U.S. government, but people disagree with Washington on national security matters all the time, and the government is not always on the right side of that conversation. Similarly, that Elon Musk is demanding payment for services rendered in Ukraine is not particularly problematic — the U.S. government has long contracted for goods and services from private industry. Lockheed Martin isn’t giving weapons to Ukraine for free, and there should be no expectation that SpaceX would give away its goods and services for free. It is also clearly in the national interest for the U.S. to protect SpaceX and similar firms from Chinese and Russian infiltration and espionage.
That said, it is a problem that a mercurial billionaire with alt-right sympathies has been placed in a position where he can make consequential national security decisions without any democratic input or oversight. If the government believes that Elon Musk is operating SpaceX on behalf of the Russian government, then it has a variety of tools to discipline Musk (including public opprobrium, to which he seems sensitive). It can even potentially remove SpaceX from his control. Reminding Musk of his vulnerability to these tools would seem to be the best option in the short term.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. Farley is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.