Fact Check: Was Elon Musk's Ukraine Starlink Funded by Biden White House?

Elon Musk inflamed his critics on Twitter with his controversial proposal of a potential peace settlement for the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

His comments were widely derided by Ukrainians, from the country's President Volodymyr Zelensky to former diplomat Andrij Melnyk, the latter of whom told Musk to "f***" off.

The Tesla CEO responded to some of his critics by claiming SpaceX had spent $80 million on Starlink terminals in Ukraine, which provide remote satellite internet coverage.

Ukraine War Musk
(Left) Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on February 24, 2022, (Right) Elon Musk attends the 2017 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Graydon Carter at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 26, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. Musk sent Starlink terminals in February 2022 to Ukraine, although claims about the contribution have been scrutinized by journalists and commentators. ARIS MESSINIS/ Pascal Le Segretain/GETTY

The Claim

A tweet posted on October 4, 2022, by commentator Andrea Junker claims that the Biden administration, not SpaceX, paid for Starlink terminals to be sent to Ukraine.

"Just for those who may be a little confused: Elon Musk did not generously donate his Starlink satellite internet to Ukraine," Junker wrote. "The Biden administration had to pay him for it."

The tweet has had more than 160,000 engagements at the time of writing.

The Facts

Junker's claim could be interpreted in at least two ways.

One interpretation is that the U.S. government paid for the project, while SpaceX took full credit.

Another is that the Starlink terminals were paid for in part by the U.S. government, contrary to the impression that all the costs were covered by SpaceX.

Based on the evidence available, it appears that the first interpretation is incorrect. The second is based on a kernel of truth, but with some caveats.

In the months after Musk announced that his company was to send Starlink terminals to Ukraine, The Washington Post ran a report claiming it had seen documents showing the U.S. had made significant contributions towards this effort.

It noted a press release sent by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), sent on April 5, 2022, which stated how the government agency had "delivered 5,000 Starlink Terminals to the Government of Ukraine through a public-private partnership with the American aerospace manufacturer, SpaceX, a private sector donation valued at roughly $10 million."

"SpaceX donated 3,667 terminals and the internet service itself, and USAID purchased the additional 1,333 terminals."

The press release was later altered, removing reference to financial contributions, although an archive of the original document is still available.

This alone suggests that SpaceX made some financial contribution toward the project, through the donation of terminals and the infrastructure to make them work.

The Washington Post made other claims based on "documents" it saw, which suggested USAID funded the delivery of the terminals too and that it paid $1,500 per terminal.

The article stated: "It is also unclear whether the price the U.S. government is paying for individual Starlink units matches their typical market price."

The documents The Washington Post referred to are not publicly available, so Newsweek cannot immediately verify the claims.

In any case, the newspaper notes that "SpaceX appears to have donated a significant sum to Ukraine's cause."

The delivery of Starlink terminals to Ukraine was prompted by a request made in February 2022 from Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, asking for "Starlink stations".

Musk quickly replied that "Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route."

Starlink satellites
A screenshot of the Starlink satellite video posted to Twitter by Daichi Fujii (Twitter user @dfuji1) on September 5, 2022 from Hiratsuka, Japan. There are nearly 3,000 satellites in orbit that are part of Starlink's satellite internet network. Daichi Fujii/@dfuji1/Twitter

The contributions that the U.S. government made to the project were revealed later.

While it doesn't look like SpaceX suggested it paid for the project alone, the partnership with the U.S. government does not appear to have been widely publicized by the company or Musk either.

Musk's most recent claim that $80 million came out of SpaceX coffers, however, has not yet been evidenced. There isn't any first-hand evidence, such as company accounts, to support it just yet.

While it appears that SpaceX has contributed more terminals than the government, Newsweek could not find public accounts or other documents that would corroborate the $80 million figure.

Newsweek will update this article should such information become available.

Newsweek has contacted SpaceX, The White House, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrea Junker, and Cristiano Lima at The Washington Post for comment.

The Ruling

Needs Context

Needs Context.

It appears, based on statements made by USAID, that while there were public funds going toward the cost of delivering Starlink terminals in Ukraine, SpaceX did make financial contributions as well.

How the cost was split is not clear, as neither the U.S. government nor SpaceX has provided open accounts.

However, the inference that SpaceX's "donation" to Ukraine was paid for entirely by the U.S. government is not accurate.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek's Fact Check team

Needs Context: The claim requires more information to set it in the appropriate context. The claim as presented may be partly true, but cannot be fully or correctly understood without the right context.
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