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Why is Elon Musk repeating a Putin talking point? The Russia expert who testified in Donald Trump’s impeachment says the world’s richest man is ‘transmitting’ Russian messages

Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is not going to plan, and the Russian president may be enlisting the help of the world’s richest man to see the conflict end on his terms.

Earlier this month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk shared his opinion on how the Ukraine War could end. In a tweet, he argued that recent elections in the Russian-annexed regions of eastern Ukraine that were widely described as a sham should be redone with international oversight, and that Ukraine should permanently cede ownership of the Crimean Peninsula, a territory that Russia forcibly absorbed in 2014.

Musk’s proposal was condemned by Ukrainian diplomats and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who implied Musk’s stance was pro-Russia. The Kremlin, meanwhile, was more forgiving of Musk, with government spokesman Dmitry Peskov later saying it was “very positive that such a person as Elon Musk is trying to look for a peaceful settlement.”

But Musk’s formula for peace in Ukraine, and other comments the billionaire has made in recent months, may be part of a larger ploy by Putin to have his terms known to the international community, according to Fiona Hill, a top Russia diplomat during the Trump administration.

“It’s very clear that Elon Musk is transmitting a message for Putin,” Hill said in an interview with Politico published on Monday.

“Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin.”

Musk’s role in Ukraine

Musk has played an active role in the Ukraine War so far, receiving plaudits from the international community after his company, SpaceX, delivered Starlink internet terminals to Ukraine shortly after the war began. The satellite internet access has proved invaluable to the Ukrainian military.

Musk has since gotten himself into hot water over Ukraine, however. He reportedly asked the Pentagon last week to foot the Starlink bill in Ukraine, saying it was “unreasonable” to expect SpaceX to continue covering most of the cost of the internet service.

Musk appeared to have changed his mind by the next day. “The hell with it,” he wrote on Twitter, announcing that SpaceX would continue to do “good deeds” while operating on a loss in Ukraine.

But with his recent statements and peace formula for Ukraine, Musk’s new role in the war may be as one of Putin’s “intermediaries,” according to Hill.

“This is a classic Putin play,” Hill said. “Putin does this frequently. He uses prominent people as intermediaries to feel out the general political environment, to basically test how people are going to react to ideas.”

In his proposed peace plan, Musk wrote that water supply to Crimea must be assured in any resolution. The Crimean Peninsula has no major rivers and relies on water supply from the currently annexed Kherson region to the north, Hill explained, a point so obscure it suggests Musk may be speaking for Putin.

“It’s unlikely Elon Musk knows about this himself. The reference to water is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin,” she said.

Hill referenced an instance from last month, when Musk proposed the same peace plan to attendees at a festival in Aspen, as further evidence of his connection to Putin. At the festival, Musk argued that the eastern provinces of Ukraine could become “quasi-independent” republics and permit water supply to keep flowing to Crimea, CNN reported from attendee testimonies. One attendee reportedly said it was “clear” that Musk had been in communication with the Kremlin, based on his statements.

Last week, Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and founder of research firm Eurasia Group, alleged in a tweet that Musk had spoken with him directly about his conversations with Putin over the fate of Ukraine and what Putin’s terms for peace would be. Bremmer did not say when the reported conversation had taken place.

Musk has yet to respond to Hill’s accusation that he is repeating Putin’s talking points, but in response to a tweet referencing Bremmer’s allegations, Musk denied the claims, saying he has not spoken to Putin in 18 months.

Putin’s playbook

Putin may be eager to find alternative avenues to end the war on his own terms as the conflict has so far not been going well for him, according to Hill. The war is now entering its eighth month, and Ukrainian forces have made steady progress in reclaiming Russian-annexed land in the east of the country.

The prospect of a drawn-out engagement has pushed Putin to authorize the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of additional troops, and the Russian president has not shied away from making nuclear threats either.

Enlisting the help of Musk and more threats of escalation may be an essential part of Putin’s playbook at this stage of the conflict, according to Hill.

“Putin is obviously hoping that now, with all of the nuclear saber-rattling, threats of nuclear Armageddon, deploying Elon Musk and others to convey his messages, that basically he can take the territory that he’s got and get recognition of that,” she said.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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