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President Vladimir Putin declared 2021 to be the Year of Science and Technology in Russia, with November named as the month of artificial intelligence (AI), signaling Russian leadership’s strong interest in this umbrella term. The Russian defense sector is particularly captivated by the opportunities associated with AI-based technologies. In recent years, AI, robotics, as well as the further integration of automation and autonomy into weapons systems and military decision-making have all been highlighted as priorities for modernizing the Russian armed forces.
In 2017, Putin famously said that “artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind … Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” Quoting these words, analysts often attribute Russia’s development, testing, and use of weaponized AI to the necessity of competing in the so-called global AI race or the global tech race with the current leading AI developers: the United States and China.
While the perceived need to compete and catch up is part of Russia’s motivations, its interest in military AI should not only be attributed to a quest for relative power. Understanding the depth and complexity of the debates surrounding AI, autonomy, and automation in Russia requires an examination of discussions about its strategic implications for the Russian army, the perceived benefits and risks of autonomy, and, more broadly, the importance of technological modernization and innovation for Russia’s place in the world.
This report aims to provide an overview of the different conceptions and motivations, both oriented towards domestic and international audiences, that have been and are guiding Russian political and military leaderships in their ambitions to pursue weaponized AI. First, it outlines the various factors, both external and internal, behind the quest for pursuing AI, autonomy, and automation in the Russian military. Second, it presents some of the Russian plans in this area, what is known about their capabilities, and the challenges to strengthening them. Third, it dives into Russian debates on autonomy, and especially autonomous weapons systems, as well as discussions on the ethics of developing so-called “killer robots,” or autonomous combat robots (боевые роботы, or военные роботы), a term often used in the Russian-language literature.
The analysis is based on a survey of open-source materials, including media reports, press releases, official statements and speeches, peer-reviewed articles and think tank reports, as well as publications in Russian military journals. The author would like to present it as the first step in an ongoing doctoral research project, as well as a contribution to the emerging English-language literature on how weaponized AI is perceived in Russia.