Roles and Implications of AI in the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is emerging as a significant asset in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Specifically, it has become a key data analysis tool that helps operators and warfighters make sense of the growing volume and amount of information generated by numerous systems, weapons and soldiers in the field. As AI use continues to evolve, its application on the current Ukrainian and future battlefields will translate into more precise and capable responses to adversary forces, movements and actions. Ukraine’s application of this technology in combat is made possible by both government and private sector efforts. On balance, Ukraine seems to be gaining more from using this technology, although it’s too early to predict whether such a technological edge will translate into significant gains against entrenched Russian positions. So far, Ukraine has managed to maintain a human-centric approach toward AI use, with operators making the final decisions. In my view, Ukraine’s Western partners are embracing that approach, but their militaries still need to agree on how to use AI after its debut in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
How the Ukrainian Military Uses AI
In this war, Ukraine has benefited from allies and partners offering their artificial intelligence technologies and concepts, which are used in several key roles. This use is publicly discussed in global media, highlighting the Ukrainian government’s willingness and ability to adopt cutting edge practices to gain an advantage over Russian forces. A major aspect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent war that passed the 500 day mark is the vast amount of data that is generated by different sources, in volumes far greater than humans are able to analyze quickly and accurately. Artificial Intelligence is therefore used for data analysis to aid Ukrainian decision-making. A key role of AI in Ukraine’s service is the integration of target and object recognition with satellite imagery, prompting Western commentators to note that Ukraine has an edge in geospatial intelligence. AI is used to geolocate and analyze open-source data such as social media content to identify Russian soldiers, weapons, systems, units or their movements. According to public sources, neural networks are used to combine ground-level photos, video footage from numerous drones and UAVs, and satellite imagery to provide faster intelligence analysis and assessment to produce strategic and tactical intelligence advantages.
In fact, the CEO of Palantir, one of the key global AI companies, admitted recently that his enterprise is responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine, such as tanks and artillery getting timely information from satellites and social media feeds to visualize friendly and enemy positions, to understand troop movements and to conduct battlefield damage assessments. Western companies like Planet Labs, BlackSky Technology and Maxar Technologies are also producing conflict satellite imagery, sharing data and analysis with the Ukrainian government and military.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the first recorded use of combat facial recognition, with Ukrainian military using U.S.-headquartered Clearview AI to identify dead Russian soldiers, and to uncover Russian assailants and combat misinformation. Public reporting also places AI at the center of allied-assisted efforts with electronic warfare, cyber warfare and encryption. The U.S. company Primer has deployed its AI to analyze unencrypted Russian radio communications, using natural language processing to understand specific ways Russian soldiers use to communicate. In 2022, U.S.-based Microsoft reported that Ukrainian cyber defenses were successful due to advances in AI-enhanced threat intelligence and the quick distribution of protective software to cloud services and other computer networks.
How the Russian Military Uses AI
Across the battle lines, there is less evidence and even less reporting of the Russian military’s use of Artificial Intelligence in the war. Like their Ukrainian counterparts, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) looks to AI to provide data analysis and decision-making capacity to the warfighter as the operator-centric—or “human in the loop”—approach to better and faster orient and decide in battlespace. Some Russia-based military experts even envision that the decision-making in combat operations would eventually be carried out by robotic systems, removing the human operator from key roles and responsibilities. Within the Russian military establishment, the drive toward using AI in autonomous, uncrewed and robotic systems is one of the most visible aspects of the country’s high-tech research, development, testing and evaluation efforts. This technology is viewed as a critical mission multiplier to eventually replace human fighters in dangerous situations. For example, Deputy Director of the Advanced Research Foundation (Russia’s DARPA-like organization), remarked in 2020 that human fighters will eventually be supplanted by military robots that can act faster, more accurately and more selectively than people.
There are few, if any, examples of Russia’s visible practical application of AI in this war. The MOD’s research and development ecosystem centered at key departments and institutions involves technical vision, pattern recognition, the application of AI in robotics and improving information systems that process large data sets as the most practical introduction of such technology during the ongoing hostilities. In practice, there are few examples so far that lend credibility to the Russian military’s AI claims in combat. In June 2023, Russian-language Telegram channels reported that Lancet-3 loitering munition is using convolutional neural networks1 to collect, classify and analyze imagery and video content collected by this UAV while in flight. Using such neural networks, a reconnaissance Lancet drone can apparently detect enemy targets and transmit images of the identified objects to the "kamikaze" Lancet that then carries out a strike. While this may sound technically credible, the actual reconnaissance for Lancets is usually carried out by other Russian drones such as ZALA or an Orlan-10. Lancet’s companion loitering drone, the KUB-BLA, also raised concerns in 2022 that it has an onboard AI capacity to autonomously identify targets, but its relatively scarce and often ineffective use has not confirmed the drone’s supposedly advanced capabilities. Such claims often lack definitive proof or even public MOD or government admission, making it difficult to determine if AI is in fact used by the Russian military in such fashion.
Another Russian claim involves the ongoing testing of the Marker combat uncrewed ground vehicle (UGV) in eastern Ukraine. This UGV was transferred to a volunteer organization based there for testing and evaluation in battlefield conditions. To date, Marker remains Russia’s flagship project in computer vision, natural language processing, navigation, autonomous movement and group vehicle control. While a few tests conducted in 2021 allegedly allowed a group of Markers to travel autonomously across complicated terrain, it’s not clear if this vehicle can in fact be used in such roles in Ukraine. A more likely scenario for the Marker is a stationary platform for reconnaissance tethered drones, instead of combat platforms traveling autonomously to self-identified target locations. The Russian military is seeking to use AI in information warfare, though scant evidence suggests a gap between the MOD’s own deliberations on this topic and the actual practical results targeting Ukrainian civilians and the military.
An absolutely crucial aspect of this war is the rapid evolution of combat technologies and the adaptation of key tactics and concepts by both sides. Today, Russian and Ukrainian militaries and their volunteer forces are flying a large number of drones for reconnaissance and combat missions. Many of these drones—such as commercial quadcopters and FPVs (first person view, “kamikaze” UAVs)—are flying in groups, with one or several operators piloting the UAVs. A natural evolution of these tactics, envisioned by both sides, is enabling actual swarms of UAVs to fly autonomously to targets, enabled by Artificial Intelligence technologies to analyze and exchange data. Ukrainian government officials are on the record saying they are exploring the use of AI in aerial drones for greater mission effectiveness. Such tactics may even emerge not just from the official military research and development institutions, but from volunteer organizations that are assisting each side with technology development and procurement.
The key requirement in this war is establishing a common operating picture of the battlefield, with intent to rapidly access and react to the constantly changing combat conditions. Ukraine’s use of Artificial Intelligence technologies to analyze vast amounts of data from numerous origin points addresses this need, resulting in accurate reaction to Russian forces’ movements and tactics. The Russian military’s own pre-invasion emphasis on AI as a decision-making and data analysis tool points to a potentially similar approach, albeit without the public evidence and discussion available on the Ukrainian side. There is evidence that the Russian military is trying to centralize its approach to combat AI: In September 2022, the MOD launched the Artificial Intelligence Department, tasked with research, development and acquisition. The Russian MOD is also on the record that it monitors global AI developments that today includes Ukraine’s use of this technology.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Ukrainian success in utilizing AI was made possible by the U.S. and Western assistance. In fact, the companies mentioned above are gaining unprecedented access to actual combat AI application in a conventional conflict between peer adversaries, something that previously possible mostly in simulations. It’s unclear if Ukraine would have been as successful without such aid, although the country’s high-tech sector still managed to develop key information-sharing software such as Kropyva even under the stress of war, as well as a Reface notification app to recognize Russia troops from satellite images. The United States’ advanced development of civilian and military AI technologies is setting the global pace for how they can be utilized in combat, with Ukraine readily adopting artificial intelligence for better battlefield management. American AI achievements are also monitored very closely by the Russian military that is incorporating U.S. artificial intelligence development practices, such as the center mentioned above. Both Ukraine and Russia look to the U.S. for key lessons in applying such technologies, although Moscow also looks to Beijing for high-tech military cooperation.
At the same time, AI is an enabler and not the tip-of-the-spear solution in this conflict, since the war is fought on the ground by infantry and weapons in ways that are more reminiscent of WWI or WWII, where territory is gained and lost in slow, grueling combat. The commercial AI solutions that aid Ukrainian efforts are also adopted quickly by the military that needs to think on its feet, without the luxury of lengthy procurement cycles or years-long testing and evaluation schedules. At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that even advanced technology has its limitations if it cannot be used downrange due to adversary adaption to combat conditions or the willingness to spend resources to maintain the tactical status quo. Currently, the use of AI in Ukraine is centered around human activity, with operators ultimately making final decisions for units, weapons and systems aided by AI-provided analysis. I believe this human-centric approach is essential in the West’s ethical use of this technology, as is the need to agree on how AI can be used by the U.S. and allies after its inaugural introduction in Ukraine. Just as crucial is the need to consider the role many commercial technologies can play in modern combat in general, given how quickly some of them were scaled up by both Ukrainian and Russian forces. With the war in Ukraine likely to continue for some time, both sides are working toward achieving an edge over one another—and AI will continue to play a growing role in this confrontation.
- Convolutional Neural Network explainer, SaturnCloud.io. Accessed July 11, 2023. A Convolutional Neural Network (ConvNet/CNN) is a Deep Learning algorithm that can take in an input image, assign importance (learnable weights and biases) to various aspects/objects in the image, and be able to differentiate one from the other. https://saturncloud.io/blog/a-comprehensive-guide-to-convolutional-neural-networks-the-eli5-way/
Sam Bendett is an adjunct senior fellow with CNAS, where he is a member of the Technology and National Security Program.