Russia's Hunt for Elon Musk’s Starlink Systems in Arab Countries, Ukraine Claims

February 14, 2024 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Russian forces are buying Starlink satellite internet terminals in "Arab countries" for use on the battlefield, Ukraine's military spy agency said on Tuesday.

The Elon Musk-owned service has been vital to Kyiv's battlefield communications, but Ukrainian officials have said Russian forces are also increasingly relying on it during their nearly two-year-old invasion.

The defence ministry's Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) released what it said was an audio intercept of two Russian soldiers discussing buying units from Arab providers for around 200,000 roubles ($2,200) each. "The aggressor state Russia is purchasing communications equipment, including Starlink satellite Internet terminals, for use in the war in Arab countries," the ministry said on Telegram.

On Monday, GUR spokesman Andriy Yusov told Reuters that Russian forces were purchasing the terminals through unspecified third countries. Starlink has said it does not do business with Russia or operate on Russian territory. The Kremlin said the terminals were neither certified for use in, nor officially supplied to, Russia, and therefore could not be used.

Russian forces are acquiring Starlink terminals from “Arab countries” for use on the front line, according to the Ukrainian military. On Tuesday, Kyiv’s military intelligence agency (HUR) released what it said was intercepted audio of two Russian soldiers discussing the purchase of the satellite internet units produced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The agency wrote on Telegram: “The aggressor state, Russia, is purchasing communications equipment, including Starlink satellite internet terminals, for use in the war in Arab countries.” Media outlets in Ukraine reported that Russian forces may have used intermediaries in Dubai to obtain the distinctive square-shaped satellite terminals.

The evidence published by HUR appears to be the first official confirmation of the methods used by Russians to circumvent swathes of Western sanctions preventing Moscow from obtaining technologies with military application. In the audio clip released by the Ukrainian intelligence agency, two Russian soldiers are allegedly discussing their poor internet connections. “Let me order you a Starlink? And you will have a f---ing good connection. Dude, do you need a Starlink,” one says.

The Russian soldier adds: “Then you need 200,000 rubles (£1,728). Do you know Oboz? You go up to him, and he’ll order it for you. The Arabs bring everything to us: wires, wifi, routers.” Last week, HUR released details appearing to confirm the use of Starlink terminals by Russian forces operating in occupied areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

A pro-Russian volunteer group also shared what it said were boxed Starlink terminals and commercial Chinese-made drones earmarked for Putin’s forces fighting in Ukraine. SpaceX, which owns Starlink, denied reports that it had sold equipment to the Russian government or military. In response to the allegations, Mr Musk, the firm's billionaire owner, wrote on X: “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.”

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.