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Russia, in a new impulse, increasingly interrupts Ukraine's Starlink service| GuyWhoKnowsThings


Just before Russian troops crossed Ukraine's northern border this month, members of the Ukrainian 92nd Assault Brigade lost a vital resource. Starlink satellite internet servicewhich soldiers use to communicate, gather intelligence and conduct drone strikes, had slowed down.

Operated by Elon Musk's SpaceXStarlink has been essential to the Ukrainian military since the early days of the war with Russia. Without full service, Ukrainian soldiers said, they could not communicate quickly or share information about the surprise attack and resorted to sending text messages. Their experiences were repeated throughout the new northern front line, according to Ukrainian soldiers, officials and electronic warfare experts.

At the center of the blackouts: increased interference from Russia.

As Russian troops made gains this month near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, they deployed more powerful electronic weapons and more sophisticated tools to degrade Starlink service, Ukrainian officials said. The developments pose a major threat to Ukraine, which has often managed to overcome the Russian military with the help of frontline connectivity and other technologies, but it has been On the defensive against the renewed Russian advance.

The new outages appear to be the first time the Russians have caused widespread disruptions to Starlink. If they continue to be successful, it could mark a tactical shift in the conflict, highlighting Ukraine's vulnerability and its dependence on the service provided by Musk's company. As the United States and other governments work with SpaceX, the outages raise broader questions about Starlink's reliability against a technically sophisticated adversary.

Starlink works by broadcasting an Internet connection from satellites orbiting the Earth. Signals are received on the ground by satellite dishes the size of a pizza box, which then distribute the connection like a Wi-Fi router to nearby laptops, phones and other devices. Starlink has provided Ukraine with vital internet service since 2022, and soldiers rely on it to guide internet-connected drones used for surveillance and as weapons, among other tasks.

In an interview this week, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's digital minister, said Russia's recent attacks on Starlink appeared to use new, more advanced technology. Previously, the service withstood interference on battlefields remarkably well, where there have been widespread electronic warfareradio interference and other communications interruptions.

But the Russians are now “testing different mechanisms to alter the quality of Starlink connections because it is very important for us,” Fedorov said, without giving details about what he called their “powerful” electronic weapons systems. Ukraine is constantly communicating with SpaceX to resolve issues, he added.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Russia's Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. An official leading Russia's electronic warfare efforts told state media last month that the military had put Starlink on a “target list” and developed capabilities to counter the service.

While Fedorov said Starlink service should improve soon, some of the outages appeared synchronized with Russian attacks, according to soldiers and officials. Any disruption at critical moments on the battlefield puts Ukraine's already overstretched military at a further disadvantage, they said.

“We are losing the electronic warfare fight,” said Ajax, the call sign of the deputy commander of the 92nd Achilles attack drone battalion, who in an interview described the challenges his troops faced after Starlink connectivity failed.

“One day before the attacks, it just closed,” said Ajax, who will be summoned only on the condition that he be identified by his call sign, in line with Ukrainian military policy. “He became super, super slow.”

The disruptions put the entire unit at a disadvantage, said a drone pilot named Kartel. During the first armored attacks of this month's Russian offensive, he said, he was in a garage without food or a sleeping bag. His team began launching drone strikes, but was hampered by connection issues with Starlink. Communication became so slow that soldiers had to use text messages sent through chat apps, he said, and even then the messages took a while to send.

“During the first hours the front line was very dynamic. The enemy was moving. And we were moving too,” he said. “We needed to be quick in communication.”

For three days, he said, the unit held off the Russians, but not without difficulties. “This made everything more complicated,” he said. “Everything took longer.”

Kari A. Bingen, a former U.S. Department of Defense official and electronic warfare expert, said Starlink and other satellite communications could be disrupted by using a high-power radio frequency to overwhelm feeder links. Stealth attacks are typically carried out from a vehicle with a large radio tower fixed on top, she said.

“It's naturally in the crosshairs of Russian forces,” said Bingen, now director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “It degrades Ukrainian forces' ability to communicate on the battlefield.”

Explanations for Starlink's outages in Ukraine over the past year vary. Several experts said Russia had gotten better at jamming the signal between satellites and Starlink terminals on the ground by using powerful and precise jammers. Others suggested the service had been disrupted by specialized electronic weapons mounted on drones, which can confuse GPS signals from Starlink, the global positioning system used to help locate satellites.

Sharp increases in Starlink usage can also degrade service. In some cases, technical restrictions aimed at preventing Russian forces from using Starlink have harmed the service of Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines. At other times, outages can be more random, like earlier this month when SpaceX reported service issues around the world due to solar storms.

Throughout the conflict, Ukrainian forces have tried various techniques to protect Starlink from attacks, including placing terminals in holes dug in the ground and placing metal mesh over them. Infozahyst, a Ukrainian company that works with the military and specializes in building tools for electronic warfare, said it did not believe such improvised solutions would be effective.

Starlink has given Musk enormous leverage in the war because it controls where satellite service is available and can choose to cut off access. In some cases, Ukrainian officials have appealed directly to Musk to activate access to Starlink during military operations so they could conduct drone strikes across enemy lines, requests that the billionaire has not always approved. The US government, which purchased Starlink terminals for Ukraine, has occasionally become involved in the negotiations.

Starlink is not sold directly to Russia. But this year, Ukrainian officials publicly they raised the alarm that Russia was using Starlink terminals purchased from third-party suppliers, which could erode Ukraine's connectivity advantage.

Experts have warned that Ukraine is too reliant on a single company for such a vital resource, particularly one run by someone as unpredictable as Musk. But Ukraine's dependence on Starlink is unlikely to decrease. There are few alternatives for such a complete and reliable service.

Fedorov said the Ukrainian government was constantly testing new systems. The military has specialized systems for maritime drones that have destroyed several Russian ships in the Black Sea, he said.

“But of course there is no mass-produced equivalent,” he said.

For Ajax, the Ukrainian commander, the loss of the Starlink service brought back bad memories of the war. When he fought near the Russian border in 2022, his unit was sometimes cut off from Starlink, disrupting video feeds from drones used to target artillery at a distance. Instead, the unit deployed soldiers to covertly monitor enemy positions and direct attacks.

“With radios it became the old thing,” he said. “We had to say, 'Move 100 feet to the left.' “It was super strange.”

Andres Kramer contributed reporting from kyiv, Ukraine and Olha Kotiuzhanska from Kharkiv and Kramatorsk.


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