May 03, 2024

The Role of AI in Russia’s Confrontation with the West

Executive Summary

Russian thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) development is consistent with that of other major powers that are seeking to respond to an evolving combat environment characterized by growing complexity and rapid technological change. Russia has made several pronouncements on the importance of AI in combat, yet it is often difficult to estimate whether the country’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) actually has utilized AI-enabled systems and weapons, including on the Ukrainian battlefield. Western sanctions and export controls also have the potential to increase the headwinds that Russia faces in its ability to meet its AI objectives.

Presently, the Russian military establishment is investing in AI research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) seen as most relevant today and in future combat. These investments are shaped both by the understanding of where such emphasis is placed among likely competitors, such as the United States and NATO, and where resources should be allocated based on the ongoing complicated combat in Ukraine.

Russian military discourse emphasizes that in the long term, there will be an eventual point where technologies subsume and then replace human involvement in military operations—yet in the near term, Russian military thinking affirms that humans must remain firmly in the loop. Like many major military powers around the world, the Russian MOD is investing in the development and application of different types of uncrewed systems for the air, maritime, and ground domains. At this point, as a reflection of combat in Ukraine, improving uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities with AI as a mechanism for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is a key emphasis in both academic writing and research and development (R&D) across Russia’s defense-industrial complex. The use of AI for data collection and analysis is also a significant part of the MOD’s impending “intellectualized” warfare as a natural evolution from the current “digital” combat technology and systems development, with AI envisioned as a data analysis enabler and a decision-making aide to operators, commanders, and deployed forces.

Russian thinking about artificial intelligence development is consistent with that of other major powers that are seeking to respond to an evolving combat environment characterized by growing complexity and rapid technological change.

According to public statements, the Russian government also places a significant emphasis on using AI in information and cyber operations. Russia also is likely to apply AI in its nuclear forces command, control, management, and use. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed multiple deficiencies in its conduct of the war, given significant personnel and matériel losses and battlefield setbacks in 2022 and 2023. To address these challenges, the Russian government is accelerating a centralized approach to AI development and forcing greater cooperation between the country’s military and civilian sectors. For its part, the military is enabling loitering munitions, aerial drones, and certain ground-based robotic systems with greater capabilities that include AI, while potentially using it in information and cyber operations.

Yet the war in Ukraine and the resulting international sanctions also are constraining Russia’s AI development to a certain extent, with the Kremlin trying to offset such disadvantages. To mitigate the impact of Western economic pressure, Russia is pursuing import substitution and technological sovereignty programs aimed at bolstering domestic high-tech R&D and manufacturing, as well as creating investment funds and programs for domestic AI companies and entrepreneurs, while also funding future workforce developments across the national academic establishment. Russia also will rely on China for AI-related technological and policy developments, as U.S. and international pressure aims to close off certain technology cooperation and procurement avenues and outlets for Russia’s domestic AI R&D.

Despite such constraints, Russia will retain certain AI capabilities that will pose challenges for the West. It is evident that despite the difficulties Russia is experiencing on the Ukrainian battlefield and at home as it tries to maintain domestic high-technology AI R&D, the Russian Federation is dedicating government, academic, industrial, and financial resources to ensure its AI development. Such efforts deserve close and continued scrutiny.


Russian thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) development is consistent with that of other major powers that similarly are seeking to respond to an evolving combat environment characterized by growing multi-domain complexity and rapid technological change. As Russia increasingly operates in the air, sea, ground, space, cyber, and information domains, it views its ability to access, understand, manage, and act upon the massive amounts of data generated by multiple sources and systems as a key battlefield requirement. The Russian military’s development of AI has been a decades-long path that has accelerated significantly in the past 20 years. Improvements in technology developments, access to international software and hardware, increasing global competition that has driven the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) to achieve real results, and Russia’s gradual progress conceptualizing AI use in combat all have propelled Russian advances.

However, as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated, there is often a significant gap between Russian statements of its military capabilities and its real-world capacity. The same is likely to be true in terms of AI. Despite Russian pronouncements on the importance of artificial intelligence in combat in general, and for domestic weapons development in particular, it is difficult to estimate whether the MOD actually has utilized different AI-enabled systems and weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield. Moreover, Western sanctions and export controls only would increase the headwinds that Russia faces in its ability to meet its AI objectives. Russia is now excluded from certain well-established technological supply chains, causing numerous challenges, including the need to rapidly restructure domestic high-tech research, development, and implementation. The exodus of many Russian citizens in the aftermath of the invasion, many of whom included IT professionals, also may widen the gap between Russia’s objectives and capacity.

Although Russia faces obstacles to its AI development, the Kremlin will seek to offset the challenges it faces. The Kremlin and the MOD clearly are determined to maintain military primacy in the post-Soviet space, to withstand the pressure from the United States and NATO, and to emerge victorious in the war against Ukraine. Within this context, the development of AI is a key national security priority in what the Kremlin sees as a civilizational mission toward which it will seek to mobilize Russia’s entire national human and technological potential. Russia also can reach out to its allies and partners for military-technological cooperation that persists despite U.S. and Western efforts to limit such engagements.

Given the myriad challenges and shortcomings that Russia faces, it will lag behind the United States and China in AI in the near to mid term. However, Russia’s AI capabilities still create challenges that U.S. and international policymakers and defense planners must navigate. In other words, Russia will remain a capable power, whose AI capabilities pose real challenges that impact not just the battlefield, but the broader confrontation that Moscow sees itself as waging against the West. Moreover, Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine may perversely amplify the risks that AI poses to the West as the Kremlin seeks AI to supercharge its asymmetric tools. The more Russia sees itself as falling behind the West in high-tech development, the more vulnerable it may perceive itself to be, which may lead Moscow to accept greater risk in the way that it deploys AI to keep apace.

This paper assesses Russian thinking on AI and its likely development, including how the war in Ukraine is shaping this trajectory. To that end, Section 1 provides an overview of Russia’s thinking about AI and its military applications and Moscow’s goals and objectives in this realm. Section 2 focuses more specifically on how Russia’s war in Ukraine is shaping Russia’s thinking on and approach to its AI sector. Because the war is ongoing, it is too soon to provide definitive conclusions about how the conflict in Ukraine will influence Russia’s AI trajectory. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the true state of Russia’s military AI development, especially given the decreasing amount of publicly available data post–Ukraine invasion and the classified environment for the nation’s military high-tech developments.

Nonetheless, the paper offers preliminary assessments based on the sources described below that factor in how the war has increased the challenges Russia will face in further developing its AI sector. Section 3 articulates the constraints that Russia faces, as well as the efforts the Kremlin is likely to make to mitigate those challenges. Finally, Section 4 spells out the key implications of Russia’s AI trajectory for U.S. policymakers and defense planners. An appendix provides additional details on Russia’s relations with external partners.

The paper’s assessments are based predominantly on public statements, announcements, and analyses in the Russian-language media, including from a military-academic ecosystem that comprises practicing and retired Russian civilian and military scientists, researchers, academics, and officers. Several key Russian documents merit highlighting. Major developments in this space are guided by the MOD’s Creation of Prospective Military Robotics through 2025 comprehensive target program launched in 2014. This classified document is supposed to be the main guiding roadmap for the development of aerial, ground, and maritime robotics. It no doubt discusses the development of autonomy and AI and likely is being edited, updated, or revised based on the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the resulting trends and developments. Additionally, on July 26, 2022, the MOD adopted the Concept of the Russian Armed Forces Activity in the Development and Use of Weapon Systems Using Artificial Intelligence Technologies, an initiative that serves as one of the guiding roadmaps for AI adoption. This document was made public at the United Nations in March 2023. These and other sources have made it possible to piece together the main elements of this MOD-affiliated AI ecosystem and related research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) programs and efforts.

Such sources offer a glimpse into Russian deliberations and debates on the role and utility of AI on the modern battlefield and help analysts understand what the Russians emphasize in terms of AI research and development (R&D). This public discussion across the MOD has been characterized by arguments that the future of war, in whatever form it takes, will be dominated by AI-enabled warfare. It is that underlying belief that has driven the Russian military to invest in the resources and knowledge needed to prepare for such wars. This paper sheds insight into Russian thinking and Moscow’s priorities for the future.

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  1. “The Ministry of Defense Approved a Program for the Development of Military Robots [Минобороны утвердило программу по созданию военных роботов],”, December 4, 2014,
  2. K.V. Vorontsov, “Speech by Deputy Head of the Russian Delegation K. V. Vorontsov during the Thematic Discussion on the Section ‘Conventional Arms’ in the First Committee of the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly [Выступление заместителя руководителя российской делегации К.В.Воронцова в ходе тематической дискуссии по разделу «Обычные вооружения» в Первом комитете 77-й сессии ГА ООН],” (speech, First Committee of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, October 20, 2022),


  • Samuel Bendett

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Samuel Bendett is an Adviser with CNA Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs Center (SP3), where he is a member of the Russia Studies Program. His work involves research on the ...

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