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Musk vs. Zelenskiy
"Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine (War Ukraine)" by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Clean Transport

Musk & Zelenskiy: A Missed Opportunity

Elon Musk is embroiled in a new Twitter disagreement, and he’s missed the chance to garner the support of Ukrainian government officials to bolster the transition to clean energy in the region.

In this corner, we have the CEO of the leading battery electric car company. He’s the envy of top engineers in different fields due to his knowledge of robotics, computer hardware, and production. In that corner, we have the president of an Eastern European country under siege by the nemesis of the West. The Musk vs. Zelenskiy battle has been broadcast live via Twitter, and it’s become the talk of the town.

A lot has been lost in the entertainment value of this verbal wrestling match, though. Musk’s offhand comments, as usual, provoked high emotions. They could have led an explicit narrative about evolving Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, something he could speak or tweet with expertise on. Musk could be focusing his online commentary on East Europe’s transition to renewable energy. His choice, instead, reflects a highly unsettling taste of his roots in colonialist South African.

This article, necessarily, has two parts. Part I is an overview of the Twitter shitstorm initiated by Musk. His initial tweets took on new life when other public figures responded with horror to his narrow-minded attempt to intercede in Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country. This part is necessary because some readers may not have followed the tweet sequence in the most recent Musk Twitter controversy. Part II is an analysis of the colonialist roots of energy infrastructure and how Musk as self-professed Techno King of Tesla follows in the footsteps of the long line of energy capitalists who have preceded him.

Part I: Musk vs. Zelenskiy — A Twitter Demonstration of Persuasion

On October 3, Tesla CEO Elon Musk starting tweeting about Ukraine, indicating that Russia is too formidable an adversary for Ukraine to defeat if Crimea is at stake. This tweet ended with a resolute plea for peace for the people of Ukraine, even if it meant abandoning Crimea. (This was a particularly odd time for such tweets given Ukraine’s recent successes, which came to the surprise of many and completely eviscerated Russia’s recent claims of annexation in some regions of Ukraine.)

In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Ukraine and many other countries condemned the annexation, and they continue to consider it to be a violation of international law and Russian agreements safeguarding the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Musk did not speak to that broad swath of international condemnations.

Instead, he proposed that UN-supervised elections take place in 4 occupied regions that Moscow “annexed.” For Musk’s version of “Ukraine-Russia Peace” to take place, Russia would leave if the people in those annexed regions deemed it so. Crimea would continue within Russia’s embrace and rule, “as it has been since 1783.”

The region has been an important crossroads in trading networks for millennia and has a multicultural history. Upon the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea formed part of an autonomous region within independent Ukraine. In 2010, new pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych extended the lease for Russian use of key port access, and Crimea fell to Russia in 2014 after Yanukovych fled (to Russia).

This week, Ukraine’s outspoken ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, had a blunt reaction to Musk’s described peace plan. (Melnyk himself is controversial in Ukraine and will be leaving his position soon.)

Musk’s request for Twitter users to weigh in on his idea by answering a poll drew immediate condemnation from many individuals. One of them was Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who responded with his own commentary and poll. (Note that voters on Elon Musk’s poll clearly went against his proposal despite the inherent bias in polling his own followers about an explicit idea or preference of his.)

Among others who joined in was Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, a career economist and banker, who tweeted in opposition to Musk’s plan, supporting his fellow leader.

Part II: Musk vs. Zelenskiy is a Referendum on Energy Independence

In February, when Ukraine’s internet was disrupted following Russia’s invasion, Musk responded to a tweet by a Ukrainian government official seeking help. Musk said SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband service was available in Ukraine and that SpaceX was sending more terminals.

Late Monday, feeling the discursive heat burning through his earlier Twitter argumentation, Musk walked back his original argument and tweeted in affirmation of Ukraine’s right to independence.

In a time of political uncertainty, conflict, and social unrest, energy barons like Musk can rise up. They can draw upon technological advances and natural resources — as in the Starlink distribution — to better people at risk.

In the case of the recent Ukraine tweet debacle, however, Musk neglected to be self-reflective and to call upon his better angels. He should be using his full force of position and power to argue for greater energy independence through renewables the world over and in Ukraine in particular.

Instead, he sparked a theoretical political debate about a war-torn country. In doing so, Musk appropriated digital propaganda and authoritarian discourse, disregarding the blood that has already been shed when people stand up to colonialism. He chose to focus rather on his right to self-expression.

He could have called on legislators the world over to rise to clean energy action, noting that many oil-consuming countries that produce very little oil, like Germany, must make huge payments every year to oil-producing countries like Russia, which is detrimental for their economies.

For his own part, former television writer/producer/actor Zelenskiy can engage in his own masterly mobilizations of persuasion (Note: Have you watched the 3 seasons of Servant of the People? You must view this text where life imitates art imitates life. Zelenskiy is able to appropriate a longstanding persuasive pattern where legal disputes over Ukrainian rights are occasionally romanticized for effect.)

As president, Zelenskiy appeals variously to grassroots organizations and international advocacy groups. He understands that the language with greatest global influence today — even for a complex interplay of economic, military, cultural, and scientific motives — is found on social media platforms. Zelenskiy used his grasp of digital public discourse this week in his contretemps with Musk to expose and critique the forms of inequality and injustices that operate in daily life of Ukrainians, with the aim of helping his nation transcend and overcome abuses.

For his own part, Musk chose to challenge Zelenskiy’s leadership and Crimea’s right to self-determination in an embarrassing episode of transactional colonialism. Musk’s insistence that he knows the future of Crimea better than others and that speeding up the inevitable will save time and casualties is dehumanizing and irresponsible. He reproduced Russia’s claim to territorial rights in what Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov called “repetition of Kremlin propaganda, a betrayal of Ukrainian courage & sacrifice.”

Colonialism’s Ugly Grasp: Musk vs. Zelenskiy

Musk’s Twitter polling reflects a continuum of dominance and exploitation in energy production. Internal colonialism like this is usually used to describe a contemporary capitalist practice of oppression and exploitation of individuals within the borders of a state.

Ukraine produces coal, natural gas, petroleum and other liquids, nuclear, and renewables. However, energy demand exceeds domestic energy supply; imports cover an energy gap of about 35%, according to the EIA. In 2020, Ukraine generated a total of 149 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity, most of which was nuclear powered. Four nuclear plants with 15 reactors generated over 51% of the total electric power supply in 2020. Fossil fuels, particularly coal and natural gas, have traditionally made up a substantial portion of electric power generation. In 2020, fossil fuels accounted for 37% of generation. Contributions from renewables and other sources have been marginal.

Ah. It seems as if electricity generation through renewables is an excellent opportunity for Musk to chime in — and to make a difference in the future independence of the region. An important aspect of the dynamics of internal colonialism is economic transactions in which the elite use the logic of investments and payoffs to justify large-scale projects for economic development. Energy injustices in large-scale renewable energy investments have been well documented, especially as regards asymmetrical relations of power and “taken-for-granted” assumptions and beliefs. Since Ukraine is an important transit country for supplies of oil and natural gas from Russia to countries throughout Europe, Musk has many options to inspire a significant and permanent shift in the region to renewables — away from a “taken-for-granted” dependence on fossil fuels.

Cyberattacks have disrupted Ukraine’s power grid constantly from the mid-2010s to the present. Information is required to initiate successful attacks on energy systems, such as level of consumption, backup systems, and the predictable impacts of eliminating electricity. Tesla’s vast data collection resources could be applied to Ukrainian energy systems as a beginning place to set up safeguards to ward off future cyberattacks.

Clearly, there is a lot of energy infrastructure guidance that Musk could offer the region. Tweeting about warfare strategy, however, isn’t helpful.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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