Russia’s AI Plans Might Not Survive The Ukraine War

As Russian leadership is trying to come to terms with technology's impact on its military power and role in the world, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and autonomy stand out as an area of particular growth and potential for influence. The country sees the development and use of AI as essential to the success of its armed forces, and key to countering the perceived threat from the US. 

Indeed, the Russian government has invested a lot into AI research and development for both civilian and military applications and in 2017 President Putin he said that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Putin also said that AI is “the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind.” He added that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” But now the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the current sanctions have stopped a lot of those efforts  to a halt, and thrown into question just how many of its AI advancements Russia will be able to salvage and continue. 

Ever since Putin promoted the development of robotic combat systems in the new State Armaments Program in 2020, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has been focused on AI. But talk of AI has been muted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Apart from the widespread employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for analysis and target acquisition there is no overt evidence of Russian AI in or decision-making among the Russian military forces. That does not mean AI isn’t used, considering how Ukrainians are now using AI in data analysis, but there is a notable absence of larger discussion about this technology in open-source Russian media. 

The gap between Russian military aspirations for high-tech warfare of the future and the current conduct of war  is becoming clear. 

Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, the head of the Military Academy of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, in January 2021 wrote that the development and use of unmanned and autonomous military systems, the “robotisation” of all spheres of armed conflict, and the development of AI for robotics will have the greatest medium-term effect on the Russian armed forces’ ability to meet their future challenges. 

Russia continued to upgrade and replace Soviet-made systems, part of the MOD’s drive from “digitisation”, weapons with modern information technologies and implementation of AI capable of performing human-like creative functions. By the end of 2021, the state agency responsible for exporting Russian military technology announced plans to offer unmanned aviation, robotics, and high-tech products with artificial intelligence elements to potential customers this year. The agency emphasised the equipment is essentially defensive, used for border protection and counter-terrorism.

Since the Ukrainian invasion began, things have changed. Russia’s defense-industrial complex, especially military high-tech and AI research & development, may be affected by the international sanctions and the effects of Russia being cut off from semi-conductor and microprocessor imports.

Throughout 2021, the Russian government was pushing for the adoption of its AI civilian initiatives, such as nationwide hackathons aimed at different age groups with the aim of making artificial intelligence familiar at home, work, and school. The government has also pushed for the digital transformation of science and higher education, emphasising the development of AI, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT).  

Russian academic AI R&D efforts drove predictive analytics; development of chat bots that process text and voice messages and resolve user issues without human intervention and technologies for working with biometric data. 

  • Russia’s development of facial recognition technology continued, with key efforts implemented across Moscow and other large cities.
  • AI as a key image recognition and data analytical tool was used in many medical projects dealing with large data sets.
  • The Russian Council for the Development of the Digital Economy has called for a ban on AI algorithms that discriminate against people.

The Human Factor

Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development was asked to "create a mechanism for assessing the humanitarian impact of the consequences of the introduction of such AI technologies, including in the provision of state and municipal services to citizens," and to prepare a "road map" for effective regulation, use, and implementation. 

The council says citizens should be able to appeal AI decisions digitally, and such a complaint should only be considered by a human. The council also proposed developing legal mechanisms to compensate for damage caused as a result of AI use. In October, Russia’s leading information and communications companies adopted the National Code of Ethics in the Field of AI; the code was recommended for all participants in the AI market, including government, business, Russian and foreign developers. 

Among the basic principles is a human approach to the development of this technology and the safety of working with data. AI workforce development was spelled out as a key requirement when the government officially unveiled the national AI roadmap in 2019. A 2021 government poll that tried to gauge the level of confidence in the government’s AI efforts showed that only about 64 percent of domestic AI specialists were satisfied with the working conditions in Russia.

The survey reflected the microcosm of AI research, development, testing, and evaluation in Russia, lots of government activity and different efforts that did not automatically translate into a productive ecosystem conducive for developing AI, some major efforts notwithstanding.

In 2021 Russia thought it was lagging behind in the development of AI technologies were the personnel shortage and the weakness of the venture capital market. The civilian developer community also noted the low penetration of Russian products into foreign markets, dependence on imports, slow introduction of products into business and government bodies, and a weak connection between AI theory and practice. 

Russia’s plans to concentrate on these areas in 2022 were revised or put on hold once Russia invaded Ukraine. 

While the Russian government is trying to improve its AI and high-tech industry with subsidies, funding, and legislative support, the impact of these recent developments may be too much for the evolving Russian AI industry. That does not mean AI research and development will stop and there are domestic high-tech companies and public-private partnerships which are attempting to fill the void left by the departed foreign IT majors. But the effects of the invasion will be felt in the AI ecosystem for a long time, especially with so many IT workers leaving the country, either because of the massive impact on the high-tech economy, or because they disagree with the war..

One of the most-felt sanctions aftereffects has been the severing of international cooperation on AI among Russian universities and research instructions, which earlier was enshrined as one of the most important drivers for domestic AI R&D, and reinforced by support from the Kremlin. 

For most high-tech institutions around the world, the impact of civilian destruction across Ukraine by the Russian military greatly outweighs the need to engage Russia on AI. 

At the same time, much of the Russian military AI R&D took place in secret behind a classified firewall and without significant public-private cooperation and it’s hard to estimate just how sanctions will affect Russian military AI efforts. 

While many in Russia now think that China will provide a substitute for departed global commercial relationships and products, it’s not clear if Beijing could fully replace the software and hardware products and services that left Russian markets at this point. 

Recent events may not stop Russian civilians and military experts from discussing how AI influences the conduct of war and peace, but the implementation of these deliberations may become increasingly more difficult for a country under global high-tech isolation.

TASS:    DefenseOne:    Fortune:    Politico:   Washington Post:    IZ.Ru:     Science Direct:   CNA

Interfax:    CNews

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