The Silicon Valley oligarch, perhaps the richest man in the world, extends a hand to his fellow oligarch, the man who has his finger on Russia’s nuclear button. They share a secret about the foolishness of the masses, and take action to save us all from ourselves. Thanks to the two of them, the world is saved from Armageddon.
Not the precis of a favourably reviewed work of dystopian fiction but a scenario presented as though it happened, in a biography of Elon Musk and its press campaign. Although neither Musk nor his biographer can get the story straight, it is true that the multibillionaire CEO of X (the platform formerly known as Twitter) refused to extend the coverage of his Starlink satellite communications for the Ukrainian armed forces last autumn.
Musk did so because Russians (sometimes he says Putin) told him that a Ukrainian attack on part of Ukraine’s own territory (the Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russia) would lead to a Russian nuclear response. This was a lie. Ukraine has carried out dozens of operations in Crimea, some of them quite spectacular. It seems absurd to have to write this sentence, but none of them led to nuclear war. The net effect of such operations was de-escalatory, as such attacks reduce Russia’s capability to attack Ukrainian territory.
Since we all know this from abundant experience, no one should have gone to press with the claim that Musk prevented nuclear war by stopping a Ukrainian attack on a Russian ship docked in Ukrainian territory. As if to punctuate the point, Ukraine has attacked several Russian ships in the past few days. Russia has retaliated by promising to repair them. The Russians know that they are in a war and that the other side is allowed to fight back.
After 19 months of war, most observers have understood that Russia’s ceaseless nuclear threats are a psychological operation, an attempt to frighten Ukraine and its allies into surrender. The claim that Musk prevented escalation repackages Russian propaganda, and helps it to find a new audience. It provides a platform to Russian lies meant to demoralise.
In fact, Musk’s actions have increased the chances of nuclear war. There is always some risk, which Russia increased by initiating a major conflict. Ukraine then decreased the probability by ignoring Russian nuclear blackmail. If Ukraine had surrendered, then the lesson for the rest of the world would have been clear: you must have nuclear weapons, either to blackmail or to avoid being blackmailed. The Ukrainians took this decision under stress, since if a weapon were detonated it would be on their territory. Musk, who was in no danger of any kind, chose instead to give in to the nuclear blackmail, thereby encouraging more of it.
If anything, Musk’s actions also extended the conventional war. After three major battlefield victories last year, the Ukrainians had a chance to put an end to the Russian occupation by striking south. One problem, to be fair to Musk, was that their western allies had not supplied them with the necessary weapons in time. But without comms, a meaningful advance was impossible. This gave the Russian side time to build the fortifications and lay the mines that make this year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive so much harder. Last week I visited a rehabilitation centre in Kyiv, and spoke to soldiers who had lost limbs.In almost every case, they had been wounded by mines. All of them had comrades killed by mines.
Everything Musk thought he was making better, he made worse. Since then, Musk has doubled down, spreading the very Russian propaganda that made him a dupe, and moving closer to a common fascist position with Putin. In a race to the bottom, both men in recent days have been blaming antisemitism on the Jews. It is not going well for Russia on the battlefield, but Musk’s handlers can certainly say that they have done their part.
Perhaps the saddest part of this affair is the celebration of a coward at the expense of people showing physical courage. Ukrainians have absorbed and reversed a full-scale invasion by the world’s largest country at tremendous cost; Musk is a guy who makes a show of not fighting Mark Zuckerberg. In presenting Musk’s psychological vulnerability as wartime glory, the biography invites us into a world where our baseless fears are the truth, and the real courage of others the distraction. The Russians played Musk the same way that social media plays the rest of us, seeking out a personal anxiety, getting us to act on it, then profiting from the cognitive dissonance.
The oligarchs will be cowards, oriented to fantasies of escape to New Zealand or Mars or immortality or whatever, disinvested from the hard choices the rest of us have to make amid the crises they are making worse. Among other awful things, Putin’s war in Ukraine was oligarchical whimsy, based on the fantasy that Ukraine does not exist and its people wish to be Russian. There are things so stupid that you must be a multibillionaire to believe them; but when it all goes wrong, another multibillionaire will offer even more stupid succour, as Musk has done for Putin.
It is hard to think of a more dangerous idea than the one that people like Musk and Putin are heroes saving the rest of us from our own limitations. The plotline about the oligarchical supermen is indeed fictional, but it does real harm in the real world.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C Levin Professor of History at Yale University
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