Russia’s Starlink use sparks probe into SpaceX compliance with US sanctions

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A Starlink satellite dish sits on the ground outside.
Enlarge / A Starlink terminal used by the Ukraine army for drone operations in May 2023.

Getty Images | Pacific Press

Democratic lawmakers are probing SpaceX over Russia’s reported use of Starlink in Ukraine, saying that recent developments raise questions about SpaceX’s “compliance with US sanctions and export controls.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk last month denied what he called “false news reports [that] claim that SpaceX is selling Starlink terminals to Russia,” saying that, “to the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia.” But Musk’s statement didn’t satisfy US Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), who sent a letter to SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell yesterday.

“Starlink is an invaluable resource for Ukrainians in their fight against Russia’s brutal and illegitimate invasion. It is alarming that Russia may be obtaining and using your technology to coordinate attacks against Ukrainian troops in illegally occupied regions in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, potentially in violation of US sanctions and export controls,” Raskin and Garcia wrote.

Musk has also stated that “Starlink satellites will not close the link in Russia.” However, the concerns raised by Rankin and Garcia are about whether Russia used the broadband service in Ukraine. Their letter said that Ukraine last month “released intercepted audio communications between Russian soldiers that indicated Russian forces had illegally deployed and activated Starlink terminals in certain Russian-occupied areas in Eastern Ukraine.”

SpaceX compliance with sanctions questioned

Rankin and Garcia say that “Ukrainian intelligence officials assert that Russian forces have obtained Starlink terminals illegally through third-party actors via neighboring countries.” But Musk has denied both direct and indirect sales, and the purchases being made through third parties doesn’t necessarily absolve SpaceX of responsibility, the lawmakers wrote:

Russia’s misuse of Starlink terminals outside Russia’s internationally recognized borders poses a serious threat to Ukraine’s security, Ukrainian lives, and US national security. SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk publicly stated that, “[t]o the best of our knowledge, no Starlinks have been sold directly or indirectly to Russia.” However, according to Ukraine, the misuse of Starlink terminals is “systemic,” raising additional questions about the efficacy of your company’s safeguards and compliance with US sanctions and export controls. We are concerned that you may not have appropriate guardrails and policies in place to ensure your technology is neither acquired directly or indirectly, nor used illegally by Russia.

The letter points out that US businesses have been warned about Russia illegally obtaining technology through intermediates. “In 2023, the Departments of Commerce, the Treasury, and Justice repeatedly issued joint compliance notes, alerts, and guidance to US private industry, specifically noting Russian efforts to illegally obtain technology and items through obfuscated third parties,” the letter said. A March 2023 notice issued by those three US government agencies said that companies’ “compliance programs should include controls tailored to the risks the business faces, such as diversion by third-party intermediaries.”

Rankin is the ranking member (i.e. the top Democrat) on the House Oversight Committee, while Garcia is the ranking member on a subcommittee focused on national security and foreign affairs.

Starlink: We don’t sell to Russia gov’t or military

In a February 8 post, Starlink said it “does not do business of any kind with the Russian Government or its military.”

“Starlink is not active in Russia, meaning service will not work in that country. SpaceX has never sold or marketed Starlink in Russia, nor has it shipped equipment to locations in Russia. If Russian stores are claiming to sell Starlink for service in that country, they are scamming their customers,” Starlink said.

SpaceX blocks use of Starlink when it finds that it’s being used by a sanctioned entity, the post said. “If SpaceX obtains knowledge that a Starlink terminal is being used by a sanctioned or unauthorized party, we investigate the claim and take actions to deactivate the terminal if confirmed,” Starlink wrote.

Rankin and Garcia want more detail. They sent a list of questions to Shotwell and asked for answers by March 20, saying the requested information will assist in Committee Democrats’ review of Russia’s Starlink use in Ukraine.

“What actions has SpaceX taken to ensure Starlink users are compliant with US sanctions and export control laws—including US sanctions and export controls related to Russia?” they asked. Rankin and Garcia want the number of reports or complaints that SpaceX has “received regarding possible illegal acquisition, trade, or use of Starlink terminals, including in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine” and information on how SpaceX investigates them.

The letter asked what SpaceX has done “to eliminate existing or potential security vulnerabilities that actors, such as Russia, may exploit to illicitly acquire, trade or use Starlink terminals, including in Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine.” The lawmakers also asked for details on how SpaceX and its subsidiaries “work with the Departments of Justice, Commerce, and/or the Treasury to prevent illicit acquisition, trade, or use of satellite terminals, including in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.”

We contacted SpaceX today and will update this article if the company provides a response.

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