Russia’s Artificial Intelligence Boom May Not Survive the War

The last year was a busy one for Russia’s military and civilian artificial intelligence efforts. Moscow poured money into research and development, and Russia’s civil society debated the country’s place in the larger AI ecosystem. But Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the resulting sanctions have brought several 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 extolled the development of robotic combat systems in the new State Armaments Program in 2020, the Russian Ministry of Defense has been hyper-focused on AI. We have learned more about the Russian military’s focus on AI in the past year thanks to several public revelations. 

But talk of AI has been muted since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Apart from the widespread use of UAVs for reconnaissance and target acquisition and a single display of a mine-clearing robot—all of which are remote-controlled—there is no overt evidence of Russian AI in C4ISR or decision-making among the Russian military forces, other than a single public deepfake attempt to discredit the Ukrainian government. That does not mean AI isn’t used, considering how Ukrainians are now utilizing artificial intelligence 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 actual conduct of war today is becoming clear. In January 2021, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky, the head of the Military Academy of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, wrote that the development and use of unmanned and autonomous military systems, the “robotization” 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. Other MOD military experts also debated the impact of these emerging technologies on the Russian military and future balance of forces. Russia continued to upgrade and replace Soviet-made systems, part of the MOD’s drive from “digitization” (weapons with modern information technologies for C4ISR) to “intellectualization” (widespread implementation of AI capable of performing human-like creative thinking functions). These and other developments were covered in detail during Russia’s “Army-2021” conference, with AI as a key element in C4ISR at the tactical and strategic levels.

Meanwhile, Russian military developers and researchers worked on multiple AI-enabled robotics projects, including the “Marker” concept unmanned ground vehicle and its autonomous operation in groups and with UAVs.

Toward the end of 2021, the state agency responsible for exporting Russian military technology even announced plans to offer unmanned aviation, robotics, and high-tech products with artificial intelligence elements to potential customers this year. The agency emphasized the equipment is geared toward defensive, border protection, and counter-terrorism capabilities.

Since the invasion, things have changed. Russia’s defense-industrial complex—especially military high-tech and AI research and development—may be affected by the international sanctions and cascading 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 across the country, such as nationwide hackathons aimed at different age groups with the aim of making artificial intelligence familiar at home, work, and school. The government also pushed for the digital transformation of science and higher education, emphasizing the development of AI, big data, and the internet of things. 

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 apace, 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 and efforts dealing with large data sets.

Russian government officials noted their country’s efforts in promoting the ethics of artificial intelligence, and expressed confidence in Russia’s continued participation in this UN-sponsored work. The Russian Council for the Development of the Digital Economy has officially called for a ban on artificial intelligence algorithms that discriminate against people.

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. According to the council, 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 in the code are a human-centered 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.

Among some of the reasons in 2021 that Russia was lagging behind in the development of artificial intelligence 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 likely plans to concentrate on these areas in 2022 were revised or put on hold once Russia invaded Ukraine. The sudden pull-out of major IT and high-tech companies from Russia, coupled with a rapid brain drain of Russia’s IT workers, and the ever-expanding high-tech sanctions against the Russian state may hobble domestic AI research and development for years to come. While the Russian government is trying to prop up its AI and high-tech industry with subsidies, funding, and legislative support, the impact of the above-mentioned consequences may be too much for the still-growing and evolving Russian AI ecosystem. That does not mean AI research and development will stop—on the contrary, many 2021 trends, efforts, and inventions are being implemented into the Russian economy and society in 2022, and there are domestic high-tech companies and public-private partnerships which are trying to fill the void left by the departed global 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, or both.

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 a siloed environment—in many cases behind a classified firewall and without significant public-private cooperation—so it’s hard to estimate just how sanctions will affect Russian military AI efforts. 

While many in Russia now look to China as 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 practical implementation of these deliberations may become increasingly more difficult for a country under global high-tech isolation.

Samuel Bendett is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an Adviser at the CNA Corporation.

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Samuel Bendett