Ronan Farrow is an acclaimed American investigative journalist and a contributing writer for The New Yorker magazine. His reporting on allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and helped to kickstart the MeToo movement. Farrow’s other prominent subjects include private intelligence agency Black Cube, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “I think one of the things that often draws me to the story is when a situation entails a lot of fear and silence, a reluctance to speak openly about something. Sometimes the right kind of investigative journalist with the right kind of platform and profile can play a positive role in getting to the public a story of true contours of what’s going on behind the scenes and breaking through that veil of silence,” Farrow says. 

The latest Ronan Farrow piece for The New Yorker focuses on Elon Musk and the outsized influence he wields over a number of different fields. At SpaceX Musk controls the modern era space travel and delivery, at Tesla he has successfully disrupted the automotive industry, and at xAI he aims to save humanity from the dangers of AI. Musk’s “visionary risk-taking” that Farrow details across multiple sectors and fields, made him the world’s wealthiest man, but also laid bare the dangers his influence poses. Starlink, a satellite internet system operating in Ukraine since the first days of Russia’s full-scale war, gave Musk a level of power to influence the outcome of the war that is comparable to a state government, Farrow argues. 

The Village Ukraine editor-in-chief Yaroslav Druziuk spoke to Farrow about the Ukrainian side of the story, Elon Musk’s dangerous tendency to broadcast Russian talking points, his unpredictability and the role journalism has in this context. 

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– After reading your piece my mind has gone back to the first days of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was February 27 when Elon Musk sent a tweet in reply to Mykhailo Fedorov [Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation], confirming that Starlink terminals were on their way to Ukraine. And I remember this sense of optimism, it was a big deal for us Ukrainians – to have support not only of the wealthiest man in the world, but this tech visionary and genius, especially in these daunting circumstances. Your piece focuses on what happened next and how Musks’ stance on Ukraine drastically shifted. But why do you think he decided to approve that request [the Ukrainian government’s request for Starlinks] in the first place? 

– Well, you can follow the dialogue between Elon and Ukrainian officials in the early days of the conflict just on Twitter. It was all public-facing, and you can read in those exchanges that he was enthused and responsive. Look, I think it was an irresistible opportunity for someone who likes to insert himself into high-profile situations. He relished the positive attention, he initially responded, because, I think, that was at a surface level a chance for him to be heroic and support the underdog in an important fight. You see him leaning into it, immediately: “Yes, Starlkink is on the way!” He loves that. 

When a sports team in Thailand was trapped in a cave, he intervened in a very similar way, he went to Thailand and built a miniature submarine, [basically] he said: I’m here to save the day. That’s one of those examples when we see the double-edged sword that is so often Elon Musk. That ended with the rescue operation telling him: “Thanks, but no thanks, we don’t think that’s appropriate, you can go home”, and him getting very, very mad and quite vindictive. That’s the case when he called one of the divers a pedophile, there was a whole legal case about it. 

But I raise this comparison because, similarly, in those early days [of the full-scale war], when he was tweeting about sending Starlink to Ukraine, you can see that he views it as a situation, where he can be a champion, where he can play a hero and where the contours of it seem quite simple in one sense. He gets to save the day. And that is a big part of Elon Musk’s psychology, that you see over and over again in his career. You know, there are these quotes in this piece from the people who are close to him, saying: “Elon wants to save things, but also he wants to be the solution himself, he wants to make sure no one else is doing the saving.” Because there is an ego-dimension to it. 

– Was that the Sam Altman [Open AI co-founder and CEO] quote, of all people? [“Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it.”]

 – You know, a variety of people told me basically the same. This combination of Elon having a sincere sense of mission and interest to help and advance humanity and, also, Elon having a tremendous ego, to the point of megalomania. [Megalomania] is the word Reid Hoffman [PayPal and LinkedIn co-founder] actually uses in this piece.

 – Such a great scoop with Reid Hoffman, especially in the context of him starting PayPal with Elon. Some of my favorite quotes in the piece belong to him, and it’s such a rare thing to see on record.

 – He speaks very frankly, and I’m grateful for that. I think one of the things that often draws me to a story is when a situation entails a lot of fear and silence, a reluctance to speak openly about something. Sometimes the right kind of investigative journalist with the right kind of platform and profile can play a positive role in getting to the public a story of true contours of what’s going on behind the scenes and breaking through that veil of silence. 

And in the case of Elon Musk’s role in Ukraine, I think, we see exactly that kind of dynamic. He’s so indispensable and important that all of the Ukrainian officials I spoke to basically said: “We have to suck up to him, you know? We’re afraid that he’s going to cut off our access again.”

– And that’s probably the best case, because [American tech journalist] Kara Swisher tells this anecdote about meeting a Ukrainian official who asked her to get through to Musk, because there was no direct communication with him at that point. How do you assess the level of communication that the Ukrainian government has with Musk now?

– I think he does have lines of communication. During the period of time in which I report that he was telling people he was talking to Vladimir Putin and others at the Kremlin, it must be said in fairness to him, he was talking to both sides. 

I think this highlights the difficulty that Elon Musk presents to the world. He is essentially behaving as a state actor, right? He has a nation-state level of power over the outcome of conflict in Ukraine, the fate of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian autonomy. So he is performing the functions of a state in a variety of ways. He’s speaking to both sides of the conflict, he is coming to his own conclusions and he can be unpredictable. I mean, we saw that after all the conversations I’m referring to he tweeted out a plan that was very pro-Russia, a lot of the kind of future they would want. 

Elon Musk on travelling to Russia

– And he’s also using a lot of the Russian propaganda talking points. 

– You know, that is the feeling of a lot of people following this conflict, that he started to internalize the Russian perspective. But unlike a situation in which a nation state plays this kind of role, Elon Musk is buffeted by a variety of incentives that are particular to business people. 

He has to navigate his relationship with the Chinese government, because so many Tesla vehicles are manufactured in China. He has to be receptive, as he publicly admitted he did, when they came to him and said that: "We are worried about you supporting war effort in Ukraine, you need to promise us you will not to anything similar in China and get people internet here, we need you to know that we’re uncomfortable with this." 

So he is pulled in a variety of different directions, he’s subject to a variety of different pragmatic business incentives. And I think that it’s fair that a lot of Ukrainians I spoke to are pretty worried that someone with those kinds of incentives and unpredictable political views on the conflict is in a such singular position of power over the outcome. 

– Your story dissects Musk’s impact across multiple industries and countries, it shows all the risks of letting one ultra-rich, unelected person to have so much power. But after reading the piece and listening to your interviews about it there’s also this sense that Elon Musk is not the villain of the piece for you, it’s mostly the systems and systemic problems that enable him to wield so much power. Would that be a fair assessment? 

– I think that’s absolutely fair, I’m glad that you picked up on that. Elon Musk is a complicated person with a variety of human foibles that, honestly, I do find relatable in some cases. He is unpredictable, he is erratic and I think he is under tremendous pressures. He has become very famous and he has become very isolated by fame and wealth. 

– He’s also very public about his loneliness.

– Yes. He’s being pushed into a more and more radical place politically by that isolation. He said that he feels he’s gotten a very cold shoulder from the kind of mainstream, in his view, more liberal establishment in the United States. And it has led to a situation where he has retreated to more extremist circles and far-right dialogue, he exhibits a lot of the traits that are often seen in those communities. He is spreading misinformation online, he’s attacking people in a very specific and politicized way.

That said, while all of that makes Elon Musk a good illustration of the perils of putting too much power in the hands of one person, it doesn’t make me think that he is a villain or that the lesson of this story is that Elon Musk is the danger. I think that all of that points to the systems that you’ve mentioned. All of that tells us that complicated human beings shouldn’t be elevated to a singular position where they control this much geopolitically. And we live in an era when extreme capitalism and vast forces in economic policy, that have been transpiring over decades, create these concentrations of power. 

And so I hope – and I think this has been the case – that the dialogue around this piece is not just about Elon Musk, that it’s about this situation that we find ourselves in. There is a spectrum of hyper-wealthy individuals, some of whom are not as public or as colorful as Elon Musk, who are pulling the strings in the geopolitical landscape in a way that state institutions are finding harder and harder to control. 

– And you go into great detail to show all the impact Musk’s actions affect these institutions. That’s exactly the case on the Ukrainian side as well, because, as you state in the piece, “Ukrainian officials probably overlooked the significance of Musk’s personal control of the situation” at the outset of the full-scale invasion. It’s completely understandable at that point of the war because the main task was to get Starlink to Ukraine and ensure that the whole country stays online. I know you interviewed a number of Ukrainian officials for this piece, and I wonder what your take on this is. Because from my experience of speaking to decision makers here in Ukraine there’s this widespread affinity and admiration for Elon Musk. I know that a lot of Ukrainian officials read Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon,  and I also know one CEO of a Ukrainian state company that literally has Musk’s quote on the wall in his office. What I’m trying to ask you is whether [this sentiment towards Musk] was a factor why Ukrainian officials may have overlooked how big of an influence Musk can be in this war?

– You mean this sort of hero worship? Yes, I think so, I think it’s one of the things that lulled people in positions of power, including government regulators, into this level of reliance on Elon Musk. The dynamic that we’re talking about, where he is a volatile and difficult to control and unpredictable figure, is relatively new. As you point out, he was greeted as a much simpler kind of public personality, someone who was called a genius very often, when he was doing good in the world, often out of his own pocket and borne of his own drive and sense of mission. All of which remains a part of who Elon Musk is. 

I think this illustrates the perils of the systemic phenomenon that we’re talking about here, right? It’s very easy to hand over keys to the kingdom, when you’re dealing with an altruistic genius. But you might just wake up the next day and find that he’s in a ketamine-fueled haze talking to the enemy, presenting extremely dubious peace plans, flipping switches on and off to alter the outcome of the conflict. I’m not suggesting that Elon Musk, in the story he presents to himself about his role in all this, is behaving nefariously, but human beings are complicated and there’s a reason why in functional democracies we put checks on the power of the individual. And this is an area in which we see that recede. 

Because Elon, having had these two phases in how he is being perceived publicly, created a kind of trap, right? The one where the people who worship and love him are very uncricitical and unreflecting about giving him everything. 

– You mentioned the impact that Musk has in this war. Say, the Armed Forces of Ukraine break through these vast Russian defensive lines and head towards Mariupol and Crimea, and then Musk decides that this Ukrainian offensive is not in his interests and turns all the Starlinks off. I actually posed this hypothetical question to a couple of Ukrainian soldiers and the reaction was pretty much the same across the map: it’s not stopping Ukrainians, but it does make it harder for the troops to communicate. Anyway, that’s really worrying for us here in Ukraine – that he can make this decision on a whim. And oh, chances are he’s making it on ketamine. 

– I am sure [that it’s worrying]. And I don’t suggest that Elon Musk is deliberately cavalier about that, he’s a smart guy, I’m sure he understands the idea that lives hang in a balance. 

But the “move fast, break shit” philosophy – that is so useful as a private business person, pursuing innovation (although it has costs even in that context, you see how many people are damaged by his moves, like in the corporate takeover of Twitter) – it’s an approach with pros and cons. I think when you apply that philosophy to warfare and the fate of nations, it’s worth pausing and asking more questions about it. 

– One of the most explosive pieces of reporting from the story concerns Musk speaking to Putin. Now, obviously he still denies the fact, as you report in the piece… 

– Although he hasn’t reiterated denial about speaking to Putin as far as I have seen it; obviously, he tweets very voluminously, I try to keep up with a lot of [his tweets], but perhaps I’ve missed some. It’s interesting, one of the things that people talk about most frequently after doing business with him or dealing with him in personal life, there are a lot of people who feel that he is deceptive. Part of the philosophies of “moving fast” and “means justify the end” is that he doesn’t particularly care – again, in the eyes of people who have this criticism based on the dealings with him – about honesty in the course of that. 

So this is a situation where many people heard him say point blank: “I’m talking to Vladimir Putin.” Even, as I mention, there’s a case where he has talked about multiple conversations with the Kremlin. And then you have him publicly saying that he hasn’t talked to Putin during this time period. So I’m inclined to believe the preponderance of the evidence and the people that are saying that he was bragging [about talking to Putin]. By the way, on the record we have a senior official Colin Kahl [the former Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon], he’s just point blank saying that [Musk] was talking to Putin. 

So that’s pretty clear to me. There’s good reason to believe that he was straight up deceptive in that denial. He hasn’t reiterated it yet, as far as I can tell. The only specific engagement he’s had with anything in this story was to call me, I believe, “a tool of the establishment and an enemy of the people”. [he laughs]

– Do you have any sense of how things changed after the Pentagon signed this new deal with Starlink? 

– You probably have as good an insight or access to this, as I do, you can ask Ukrainian officials about that. The conversations that I had suggest that it helped in a sense that basically the Pentagon was able to pay him off. 

Understandably, part of his compunction about his role in Ukraine was, yes, this matter of principle, of his products being used in warfare, and also this matter of policy, of how does this engage with Russian concerns. But there was also a pragmatic concern about cost, the very tremendous outlay for his company financially. The Department of Defense intervention here and the formation of the Pentagon contract took that off the table. And what I have been told by the people familiar with the specifics of the terms, is that they are paying a really high rate per Starlink unit. So he now has positive financial incentives to stay in line in this. 

From what I have been told by Ukrainian officials, there has not been a further interruption of service since that deal went into place. However, it’s less obvious to me whether that contract prevents further geofencing [cordoning off access to Starlink use in some areas]. It’s clear that that’s a pretty complicated area of dialogue, that it’s very sensitive. And both American and Ukrainian officials are still very fearful of aggravating him or poking the bear at this point.  

– Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment here. One of the arguments that is often used to defend Musk is that he’s basically the ultimate “the end justifies the means” guy. Like, he’s talking about making humans a multiplanetery species, he’s talking about saving humanity from AI and using green energy to prevent extinction. And in this set of priorities taking sides in a war or speaking to Putin is just not a big deal to him. Do you see any value in this argument, that basically all this stuff seems insignificant to him and that’s why he behaves so erratically here?

– I think the answer to this question is complicated, because one of the things that becomes apparent when you try to scrutinize his companies and his role within his companies, is that Elon Musk is a very hands-on boss a lot of the time. He’s someone who clearly delights in wrapping his arms around engineering problems, getting into nitty-gritty technical discussions with the engineering talent that he’s recruited to these companies. You know, he’s not a virtuosic programmer himself, but he does have a programming background and an understanding of approaching technical problems. Yes, there are varying accounts of how good an engineer he is himself, but certainly he is dialed-in to an engineering mindset enough. 

For instance, when he was seeking to start SpaceX, he went to Russia and tried to purchase intercontinental ballistic missiles there and when he was rebuffed, because he didn’t want to pay too much for those, he responded to that by downloading schematics himself and saying: “Yeah, I can build these rockets myself and I can do it cheaper!” And this is a story recounted in Ashlee Vance’s book and a couple of other places, so he obviously wants this story as part of his mythology. So that does require a real brio for engineering problems and a real, kind of technical, hands-on mindset. 

So I don’t think it’s that he is so broad-strokes that he’s never dialed-in to the substance. I do think that the relentlessness of his sense of mission and of his supremacist ambitions across multiple sectors, that he wants to dominate these fields and be a kind of a savior in each of them, means that he is moving very, very fast. 

– And breaking things.

– Right, it’s part of his whole philosophy about progress: move fast, break things. And he is doing it across a vast swathe of very different fields. So inevitably you have these questions that are being raised by his boards, for instance, whether his interests are too divided. When you are sprinting your way to progress in multiple really sensitive fields at any given time, and you’re sleep-deprived and oversubscribed – what is the outcome for these important issues that you are shaping? 

– Especially when human lives literally depend on it, as in the case of Ukraine.

– Yeah, and this is exactly why we have collective government solutions, why right-minded people understand why having an autocratic rule is a recipe for problems and abuses. Some of that is about restraining power and realizing that megalomania can go sideways very quickly. 

And it’s also about humaneness to individual leaders. We do put a tremendous amount of stress on leadership within democratic governments, it’s a stressful job to be a president of a country. But in some ways Elon Musk is subject to more pressure and stress than even a typical government leader. He’s a much more single-handed controller of his endeavors in these different policy areas, than you would see in a head of state, who has a cabinet, has a lot of vast systems he’s beholden to as he executes policies in different areas. 

 – On a final note, I hope that a lot of young Ukrainian journalists will read this interview, so I have to ask you – what’s one piece of advice you’d give a young man or woman starting out in journalism in wartime Ukraine?

– I think that what I have realized across all of these experiences in my own life and career is that while the work of reporting the truth in difficult circumstances is very taxing and can feel frightening at times, it’s also worth the fight. And it’s needed. In some cases, it’s the only way we can see progress and accountability. 

So, especially in a wartime setting, I am so personally grateful to every journalist who puts in the work to make sure that the public really understands what is happening. I think that public knowledge about the costs of war are one of the ways in which we ultimately can move towards peace. And it has been important for policy makers here in the United States that there would be a good, accurate flow of information on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine. And I can only pray that people still have the strength to do that in a situation as difficult as this one. It is really hard, but it’s also really important work. 

And when I talk to young journalists who are considering going into this field, I try to emphasize not only the difficulties, but the ways in which it’s a real privilege to be able to contribute to people’s understanding of the truth and to push towards accountability. It’s very fulfilling work for all the ways in which it can also be punishing. 

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