Outmanned, and out-resourced by Russia, Ukraine is hoping smart use of artificial intelligence will turn the tide in the war, both on the battlefield and on the messaging front.
Since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukraine has applied AI on the battlefield, to document the war, and to defend itself against Russian cyber and information warfare.
On the battlefield, autonomous Ukrainian drones, both military and civilian, identify and strike Russian targets. AI automates take-off and landing, as well as targeting. In October, a mass Ukrainian drone attack deployed 16 uncrewed aerial vehicles and surface vessels to damage Russian ships in the port of Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea.
These drones are increasingly home-made: about 200 Ukrainian companies manufacture drones for the military and the government is determined to further boost domestic production. Makeshift FPV (first-person view) kamikaze drones, assembled from imported components, are cheap and efficient. It costs as little as $400 to make one capable of destroying a Russian tank worth millions, Ukrainian experts say.
AI analyzes satellite and drone imagery, social media images, and intelligence information to create a multi-layered picture of the situation on the ground. These ‘Google Maps for the military’ help Ukrainian military commanders make informed decisions.
In the documentation of war, AI’s role is considerable. AI-powered facial recognition software allows Ukrainian law enforcement agencies and journalists to identify Russian war criminals. Satellite images document Russian war crimes, such as mass killings of civilians in Bucha and Mariupol, and prove that Russian officials’ repeated denials of them are lies.
AI is even planning Ukraine’s reconstruction. A Ukrainian company ReThink trained AI recognizes construction materials in damaged buildings in Bucha, based on open source data and drone images. This information allows the government to plan the most efficient way to rebuild. AI helps determine the areas mined by Russians.
The Ukrainian government and independent media leverage AI to confront Russian propaganda. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized an exhibition titled “Living in War” at the German Bundestag. Ukrainian media outlets such as Texty visualize the war’s impact, creating an interactive map of destruction showing Russian strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
Sometimes, AI-generated imagery has turned out to be controversial. Ukraine’s Parliament had to delete a tweet about a Russian missile attack on the city of Dnipro earlier this year, which was accompanied by an AI-generated image of a wounded boy. Such use of AI damages the credibility of information coming from Ukrainian official sources.
AI can be a double-edged sword: Russia uses it to generate and automate the distribution of misleading content. A 2022 deep fake video of President Volodymyr Zelensky calling on Ukrainians to surrender. It failed to convince Ukrainians, but experts warn that Russian AI is improving.
Despite these dangers, Ukrainians rely on new technology in their information war against Russia. Ukrainian startups such as LetsData, Osavul, and Mantis Analytics, analyze large volumes of social media data. Their goal is to identify Kremlin-linked networks and track disinformation narratives. AI offers them an opportunity to respond proactively, do pre-bunking, and, for the government, organize preventive information campaigns.
Cyber defense technologies shared with Ukraine by its Western partners and tech companies enable Kyiv to successfully repel most Russian attacks. At least 470 cyberattacks targeted Ukraine over the past year, but their impact was limited.
While the world debates the impact of AI, Ukrainians already see, experience, and, most importantly, use it. While the West has been sharing cutting-edge software, more is needed. In a situation of numerical and resource disparity against Russia, AI is key to Ukraine’s hopes of winning the war.
Olga Tokariuk is a Chatham House Academy fellow, Ukraine Forum, and a non-resident fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.