One evening in September 2022, a group of Ukrainian sea drones sped out into the Black Sea, heading for Russian-occupied Crimea. Their designers—engineers who had been doing other things until the current war began—had carefully targeted the fast, remote-controlled, explosive-packed vessels to hit ships anchored in Sebastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. But the drones ran into a problem: Starlink, the satellite-communications system that Ukraine had been using since Russia invaded early last year, unexpectedly wasn’t working. This was a surprise to the engineers. Several people, in Ukraine and elsewhere, frantically called and texted Elon Musk, the owner of Starlink, to persuade him to enable the system.
Musk, in turn, called Walter Isaacson, his biographer, and told him that there was a “non-trivial possibility” that the sea drone attack could lead to a nuclear war. According to Isaacson, Musk had recently spoken to Russia’s ambassador in Washington, who had warned him explicitly that any attack on Crimea would lead to nuclear conflict. Musk implied to several other people (though he later denied it) that he had been speaking to President Vladimir Putin around that time as well.
These are details that you may have already heard. Many of them were first reported in May, by Oliver Carroll of The Economist. Since then, The New Yorker has also described how Ukrainian soldiers abruptly lost their access to Starlink on the battlefield during a different set of land operations. Isaacson’s version of the maritime story implies that all of the drones in the operation washed ashore that evening. But recently in Ukraine I met some of the engineers who helped design the unmanned sea vehicles, including an engineer who was involved in the first attempt to hit Russian ships in Sebastopol. They told me that not all of the drones involved were lost. Some returned back to base, undamaged.
Here is the part you might not have heard, or not registered: The same team launched a similar attack again a few weeks later. On October 29, a fleet of guided sea drones packed with explosives did reach Sebastopol harbor, using a different communications system. They did hit their targets. They put one Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, out of commission. They believe that they damaged at least one submarine, and, the engineers say, at least two other boats as well.
And then? Nuclear war did not follow. Despite Musk’s fears, in other words—fears put into his head by the Russian ambassador, or perhaps by Putin himself—World War III did not erupt as a result of this successful attack on a Crimean port. Instead, the Russian naval commanders were spooked by the attack, so much so that they stuck close to Sebastopol harbor over the following weeks.
For their own security, I am choosing not to publish the names of the engineers. I was introduced to them by a tech executive I met on a previous trip to Ukraine, when I was writing about drone operations more broadly. This team has shown off its unmanned boats before, so I am not revealing secrets when I write that they are small, black, hard to see on the water, and have a very long range—now more than 650 miles, the engineers told me. The drones are constantly reinvented and redesigned. Some of those I saw were described as the “fifth generation.” I was given the remote control of one on a distant body of water; directing it felt remarkably like playing a video game.
Like the more famous air drones, sea drones are a central important part of Ukraine’s idiosyncratic way of waging war. Unable to compete plane for plane or ship for ship against the much larger Russian military, Ukraine is using tiny, high-tech, custom-designed, and relatively cheap devices that can take large, expensive artillery, tanks, or ships out of the game. Many of these devices are built by groups that are not quite part of the military, but not exactly private either. This networked, grassroots, asymmetric response is part of how the Ukrainians hope to win the war. “This is Ukraine. We are hybrid,” one of the engineers told me.
He also told me that although his drones didn’t destroy the whole Black Sea fleet, they have had an impact on the war. Russian military ships became more cautious. Instead of physically blocking Ukrainian grain transports, as some observers expected them to do, they have stayed in port. “We made them scared,” he told me. They were happy to confirm that if a Russian warship does try to block a cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain, they will hit it.
Musk was wrong, in other words. Instead of inspiring World War III, the sea drone attack helped reduce violence, protected commerce, boosted Ukrainian farmers, and maybe even ensured that some people outside of Ukraine didn’t go hungry. If not for Musk’s hubris, those effects might have been felt earlier. Maybe the first attack could have eliminated more of the ships whose missiles have been killing civilians in Ukrainian cities. Maybe fewer people would have died as a result. And maybe the war, which will be over when Ukraine takes back its own territory, and ends the torment of its own citizens on that territory, would be closer to its end.
This is a cautionary tale about the arrogance of a billionaire who has come to play a mercurial role in U.S. foreign policy. But it’s also a story about fear, seeded and promoted by the Russians, deliberately designed to shape broader Western perceptions of this war. Musk is not alone: Many people in Washington, and in Berlin, Brussels, and other European capitals, including people who support Ukrainian sovereignty and who want Ukraine to win the war, have also been cowed by conversations with Russian ambassadors, by threats issued by Russian leaders, or by the pictures of nuclear explosions shown on Russian state television. Long before he spoke to any real Russians, Musk likely encountered that same propaganda in the Russian-influenced far-right echo chambers that he frequents. In 2016 Donald Trump probably got the idea to accuse Hillary Clinton of wanting to start World War III in that same social-media milieu.
The Russians do this for a reason: Fear of escalation is designed to create self-deterrence—and it works. In 2014, Western leaders, fearing escalation, advised Ukraine not to fight back when Russia invaded Crimea. This advice led to misery for the people arrested, imprisoned, and chased away from the peninsula. It also convinced the Russians to continue their invasion of eastern Ukraine. They stopped only when the Ukrainians fought back.
Between 2014 and 2022, the United States and European nations, fearing they might provoke Russia attack, limited or banned weapons sales to Ukraine. This too proved to be a terrible, consequential mistake: Had the Russians actually been afraid of the Ukrainian army, they might never have launched the full-scale invasion at all.
Even when the full-scale invasion began last year, amorphous fear of Russian reaction again convinced Americans and Europeans to hold back on long-range weapons to Ukraine, partly because we feared what could happen if they were used to hit Russian targets. But then the Ukrainians used their own weapons to hit Russian targets, first in the border region, then in Moscow, Pskov, and other cities. Nuclear war did not break out then either.
I could repeat the same story for just about every significant class of weapons. Fear of escalation meant that some nations, notably Germany and the United States, did not give Ukraine the tanks that it needed to go on the offensive and take back its territory. Fear of escalation also meant that Ukrainians did not receive F-16s in time to help with this summer’s counteroffensive. Fear of escalation meant that we have refused to give the Ukrainians a long-range ballistic-missile system known as ATACMS. Now the tanks are on the ground, the F-16 pilot training has begun and, reportedly, the Biden administration may be planning to give Ukraine ATACMS too.
Each of the delays wasted time. And time has cost lives—maybe tens of thousands of lives. I was in Ukraine exactly a year ago, in September 2022, on the weekend that Ukrainian troops took back the northern cities of Izyum and Kupiansk. A few weeks later, the Ukrainians took back the city of Kherson. At that moment they had momentum. A year later, the euphoria is gone, and no wonder: That momentum was lost. After taking Kherson, Ukrainian forces did not have the weaponry to move forward further. They did not try to advance again until June of this year. By that time, Russians had created hundreds of kilometers of minefields, some of the most extensive minefields any army has ever tried to cross, as well as a system of tank traps and trenches that have slowed Ukraine’s counteroffensive and, again, led to the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.
Think about what the world might look like if Putin’s nuclear threats had not influenced our imaginations so profoundly. If Musk had not been spooked by Russian propaganda, then some of Russia’s fleet might have been disabled a month earlier. If Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin had not been spooked by Russian propaganda, then the Ukrainians might have expelled the Russians earlier, and the war might be over. Death, horror and terror have been the result every time outsiders hesitated to aid Ukraine.
There is always a “non-trivial possibility,” to use Musk’s term, that the Russians will use nuclear weapons; there was also a non-zero possibility that Robert Oppenheimer’s nuclear bomb test would blow up the planet. But if we want to deter the Russians from using their nuclear weapons, we have other ways to do it. Our own nuclear weapons, and our own superior conventional forces, are a powerful deterrent: Most analysts think they explain why Russia has not deliberately hit any targets on NATO territory. Heavy hints from China and India that nuclear escalation would be a terrible mistake, as well as statements about the unacceptability of nuclear war from the G-20, the United Nations and others, help too.
Ukrainian attacks—especially unexpected, asymmetric attacks, like those from sea drones—are also a form of deterrence. So is our continued commitment to Ukraine. Every time we announce another weapons shipment, or the European Union makes another financial pledge, or President Joe Biden makes another statement of support, then the Russians know that the price of occupation, and of any escalation, is growing higher. Resistance doesn’t provoke Putin; weakness does.