Look, I’ve been avoiding talking about Elon Musk’s meddling in international affairs largely because I am not expert enough in international affairs to say much of anything. But now we’ve got Fiona Hill, formerly an advisor to Donald Trump who gave testimony at his first impeachment hearing, out here suggesting that Musk is “transmitting a message for Putin.”
This shit’s weird, dude, even for me. Musk set off an international shitposting incident by tweeting a peace proposal for the war in Ukraine. In response, sitting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy polled Twitter about whether users preferred a pro-Russia or pro-Ukraine Musk; sitting Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda likened Russia’s actions to someone stealing the wheels off a Tesla; and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Musk he’d blown his cover as a Russian agent. Love to have fun online!
Crimea is a dry peninsula, so the concern about water “is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin.”
Anyway, that wasn’t the first time Musk had suggested that Crimea should be recognized as Russian. Because Ukraine’s been winning, he said, the country should negotiate peace. “In my view, the nature of that peace would be: recognizing Crimea as Russia, allowing Luhansk and Donetsk to be independent, quasi-independent republics, and don’t block the water to Crimea like they did last time. Russia would accept those terms.”
In the CNN story that reported on these comments, some unnamed sources suggest Musk has been in contact with the Kremlin. Hill concurs. Crimea is a dry peninsula, so the concern about water “is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin,” Hill says.
Now, Hill says Musk is hardly alone in bearing Putin’s messages — she names former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as another emissary — but most other people don’t have the same kind of cultural power as Musk, who is also very popular in Russia. “Elon Musk has enormous leverage as well as incredible prominence,” Hill notes, pointing to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet operating in Ukraine.
It’s not that unusual for the Masters of the Universe to try their hands at politics. Generally, this happens more locally: tax breaks, political donations, and puppet candidates, for example. When a businessperson gets involved in politics, it is not about moral righteousness or real civic feeling. It is about the bottom line since money is just how the powerful keep score.
Important geopolitical insights?
Musk has been — admirably! — supplying connectivity to Ukraine through Starlink. This has cost SpaceX $80 million and “will exceed $100M by end of year,” he wrote on Twitter. Also, Musk is in “regular contact” with Ukraine Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. CNN reported that Musk warned the Pentagon that SpaceX couldn’t go on paying for Ukraine’s internet. In documents obtained by CNN, SpaceX says Ukraine’s use of Starlink “cost close to $400 million for the next 12 months.”
I am going to assume, in the absence of any evidence, that Musk would take a geopolitical conflict more seriously than, uhhhhh, buying Twitter
So, naturally, SpaceX asked the DOD to pay for service instead. Naturally, on Twitter, all hell broke loose, and Musk ultimately said that SpaceX has withdrawn this request, though it’s probably a good idea to let the US government pay for Starlink. SpaceX is a private company! Other private companies make money on war! This way, the US is the client, and Ukraine doesn’t have to keep track of Musk’s moods!
That last point is pretty important, actually. During the international shitposting incident, a Ukrainian diplomat told Musk to “fuck off.” So when Musk’s letter about Starlink funding came to light, Musk said, “We’re just following his recommendation!” Now there is a general problem of reading tone on Twitter, but this seems to me like a fairly obvious joke? I strongly suspect the letter was drafted before Musk got into a Twitter beef, but I can’t prove that. All I can say is that if you are feeling nervous about Musk’s commitment, this kind of joke doesn’t really help.
We also just saw a tranche of Musk’s texts, where his mood turned on a dime when Parag Agrawal, CEO of Twitter, asked Musk to stop shit-talking Twitter during the brief window where it looked like Musk would join Twitter’s board. Two minutes later, Musk replied that joining the board would be “a waste of time.” This was the beginning of the Twitter acquisition, which must close by October 28th or we all go back to court.
I am going to assume, in the absence of any evidence, that Musk would take a geopolitical conflict more seriously than, uhhhhh, buying Twitter. But the optics here aren’t great for Musk! Making dumb jokes in a business environment is occasionally in poor taste, but making dumb jokes when people’s lives are at stake is different. More than 14,000 civilians have been wounded or killed in Ukraine, according to a UN report in September; I assume that number has only grown since. Meanwhile, more untrained Russian conscripts are being shipped out into the meat grinder.
“I don’t think you can know for sure the markets are going to bottom out unless you know there’s going to be a successful resolution of this Ukraine war.”
But I also suspect Musk was surprised by the blowback to his peace plan. More than half of the Americans surveyed by Pew in September thought the US was providing enough support or could provide more. Supporting Ukrainian war efforts, then, is reasonably popular! (Less than 20 percent of Americans thought the US was doing too much; the rest said they didn’t know.) There is a place where it’s not reasonably popular, though, and that place is Musk’s social circle.
I am talking in part about SpaceX investor and Musk pal David Sacks. You may remember the venture capitalist from his amusing “monster of the week” episode of the Musk v. Twitter lawsuit: he’d been subpoenaed as part of the case, and after complaining about it on his podcast, All-In, he tried to quash the subpoena. The judge who ruled on his motion tartly noted that “In an apparent effort to keep Sacks’s promise to his podcast listeners, the movants created the very burden of which they now complain.” He was ordered to comply with the subpoena.
That’s pretty good earned media, though! Sacks has also written in The American Conservative that too many commentators on Ukraine simply do not play enough high-stakes poker to understand how to negotiate risk. Poker is a good stand-in for financial risk — but using it as the dominant risk metaphor here tips Sacks’ hand. In poker, if you decide badly, you lose all your money; in war, if you decide badly, people die.
The poker metaphor is there because Sacks is concerned about his money. This makes sense for a VC: it’s his job to worry about money. And Sacks was admirably forthright in admitting this on his podcast, All-In, where he says, “I don’t think you can know for sure the markets are going to bottom out unless you know there’s going to be a successful resolution of this Ukraine war.”
You know who’s way more relevant to that conversation than Putin?
This matters because of Sacks’ proximity to Musk. Our thoughts and opinions are shaped by the people we talk to, and it’s reasonable to infer from Twitter v. Musk that Sacks and Musk talk about politics. At one point in the texts, Sacks offers to introduce Musk to Justin Amash, a “former congressman who’s libertarian and good on free speech,” he writes to Musk. (Musk replies that he doesn’t yet own Twitter.)
On October 17th, Musk quote-tweeted, approvingly, an article Sacks wrote in Newsweek about the importance of de-escalation in Ukraine and how everyone making fun of Musk’s peace plan was engaging in “woke cancellation tactics.” It seems unlikely to me that the Newsweek article was the first time Musk heard about Sacks’ views. Because, separately from appearing in Musk’s texts, investing in Musk’s companies, and getting involved in Musk’s lawsuits, Sacks appears to be an actual friend of Musk’s. That’s nice. It’s good to have friends!
So when Musk says to Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, “I’m trying my hardest to de-escalate this situation and obviously failing,” it’s worth noting who around him has been asking for de-escalation. You know who’s way more relevant to that conversation than Putin? David Sacks! And you know who I don’t have to speculate about Musk’s contact with? David Sacks! I don’t have to think whether I believe political consultant Ian Bremmer’s claim that Musk says he had a kiki with Putin because Musk and Sacks talk way more often. (I also notice that Musk denies talking to Putin about Ukraine and says that Bremmer is not to be trusted but doesn’t deny that he told Bremmer he’d talked to Putin, opening up the hilarious-to-me possibility that Musk lied to Bremmer and is now embarrassed it got out.)
I’m not cliqued up in DC like Fiona Hill. Maybe she’s seen evidence that Musk and Putin have been, idk, playing online chess together or something! Personally, though, I think there’s a much simpler explanation for why Musk is so wildly out of step with the views of the public at large. Musk belongs to an insular milieu, one that has Deep Thoughts about Ukraine. Honestly, it’s kind of more embarrassing if your Deep Thoughts make a former presidential policy advisor assume you’re floating test balloons for Putin when you’re not.
On the other hand, all of Musk’s Twitter Deep Thoughts about Ukraine have appeared between exhortations to buy his perfume, Burnt Hair, and tweeted-then-deleted image macros about linking up with Kanye and Trump and their respective social media services, Parler and Truth. Oh, and a crossover movie event between Boss Baby and Das Boot and musings about the feasibility of quieter leaf blowers. If it weren’t for the pro-bono Starlink service that essentially relies on Musk’s goodwill, I’m not sure we’d have to interpret Musk’s Ukraine thinkfluencer tweets at all.