June 18, 2022No Comments

AI goes to War: Observations from the Battlefields in Ukraine

Author: Andrea Rebora, Federica Montanaro and Oleg Abdurashitov.

Although the concept of artificial intelligence is quite complex and nuanced, many people imagine its use in warfare as a brutal slaughter conducted by evil robots. The reality is much different, and the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine offers a glimpse of what AI is being used for on today’s battlefields.

Researchers and military experts have spent years trying to visualize and understand military operations conducted with the support of artificial intelligence systems. One of the most prominent examples is the use of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs), systems designed to locate, identify, and engage targets based on programmed information without requiring constant human control. Russia is using its KUB-BLA during the invasion in Ukraine, a loitering munition (commonly known as kamikaze drone) designed to identify and attack ground targets using AI technology.[1]However, the Russian aerial campaign leveraging these drones appears weak overall, and its fleet surprisingly small.[2] On the Ukrainian side, the Bayraktar TB2 drone fleet arguably appears to be its most potent force,[3] alongside the “kamikaze drone fleet,” with an estimated 20-30% of the registered Ukrainian kills to be the result of the successful employment of these systems.[4]

Another application envisioned on the battlefield is the use of AI to automate the mobility of vehicles, such as tanks and vessels, and make them more effective at identifying routes and prioritizing target selection and engagement.

AI is being increasingly included in the military decision-making process, from the straightforward calculation of aircraft or missile trajectories to the identification of targets during sensitive operations via automated target recognition. In 2021, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall confirmed that AI had already been used during at least one “live operational kill chain,” demonstrating its effectiveness on the battlefield.[5]

Finally, the idea of artificial intelligence being applied to cyber operations is a thought that keeps many professionals up at night. Cyberattacks have already become one the most pervasive issues of this decade and, if enhanced by AI, they could be used to cause significant damage and potentially destabilize entire countries.[6]

The war in Ukraine, however, seems to be a far cry from swarms of unmanned drones and autonomous vehicles clashing with robotic systems of the adversary, as envisioned by several researchers of future warfare[7]. While AI algorithms reveal themselves on the battlefield, they do so in far more mundane aspects. 

The most illustrative example is the use of Ukraine’s specialist application for artillery (GIS Arta), which combines the conventional geo-mapping tools with the ability to sift information on the enemy’s location from a variety of sources and data types, including military and civilian drones and smartphones, GPS trackers and radars.[8] The intuitive and data-agnostic system has since become a force multiplier for the outgunned Ukrainian artillery, increasing the precision of their strikes.

The algorithmic geo-mapping itself, however, is not new and both high-resolution maps and image and processing algorithms are widely available and used among a range of civilian apps - from online maps to food delivery. The GIS Arta allows the blending of imagery intelligence (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) feeds into an actionable solution for cheap and proves the ingenuity of Ukrainian developers and army in adopting civilian AI and machine learning technology for military use, but also highlights that the use of technology is shaped by the conditions and demands of the battlefield, not vice versa.

Russia, in turn, claims it is working on updating its reconnaissance and reconnaissance-strike drones with “electronic [optical and infrared] images of military equipment adopted in NATO countries” obtained through the application of neural network training algorithms.[9] With images and videos of NATO-supplied equipment requested by Ukraine widely available on the internet in almost ready-made datasets, the use of neural networks may be justified. Given that both Russia and Ukraine rely on human operators of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), whose ability to identify snippets of objects is dramatically outmatched by the image recognition technology, such an AI-augmented approach may lead to better prioritization and increased accuracy of the Russian strikes targeting. 

Another example is the use of AI-enabled face recognition algorithms largely thanks to the ubiquity of visual content, ranging from smartphone videos and security camera feeds to social media pages.[10] The use of face recognition ranges from inspecting people and vehicles at checkpoints to identifying the potential perpetrators of war crimes. While lacking the immediacy often required on a battlefield, face recognition may become an essential deterring component of warfare preventing the most horrendous crimes on the battlefield. 

The use and credibility of such technology are not without controversy since AI algorithms are prone to bias and software flaws. In particular, the first person officially accused by Ukraine of war crimes in Bucha, who was caught on camera in a courier service office in a Belarus town used by Russian soldiers to send looted goods back to Russia, is a Belarusian citizen who vehemently denies even serving in the military.[11]

What emerges from this evolving environment is that the employment of AI on the Ukrainian battlefield is very human-centered and not very different from what has been seen in other conflicts. Despite the technological progress and innovations, there is still no clear evidence of the use of fully autonomous weapons in Ukraine. The presence of human beings “in the loop” still prevents us from finding a paradigmatic change in the employment of AI in this conflict. Artificial intelligence is leveraged as an instrument, which shapes and facilitates decision making and enables the implementation of decisions already taken, but is still not allowed to, or capable of, making autonomous decisions.

Despite the relatively limited use of advanced AI systems, the conflict in Ukraine provides a significant amount of operational and technical information. On the operational side, AI systems are being examined, tested, and deployed in various degrees and scope of application, allowing researchers and officials to understand the advantages and challenges in leveraging such systems in active conflict. On the technical side, the data collected such as images, audio, and geographical coordinates, can be used to train and improve current and future systems capable of, for example, recognizing camouflaged enemy vehicles, identifying optimal attack and counterattack routes, and predicting enemy movements.

The conflict in Ukraine provides an overview of the AI military capabilities of the two countries and the level of risk they are willing to accept with their top-of-the-line AI systems. After all, the cost-benefit analysis associated with using autonomous weapons in low-intensity conflict is much different from using the same weapons in open conflict, where the risk of losing just one AI-powered system is very high and particularly expensive. The military invasion of Ukraine is unfortunately not over yet, but militaries around the world will study its execution and aftermath for years to understand how to leverage AI systems for offensive and, most importantly, defensive applications.

May 30, 2022No Comments

The Geopolitics of the Energy Transition’s Momentum

Authors: Riccardo Bosticco and Michele Mignogna.


The main result that Putin has achieved until now with the aggression of Ukraine is a solid stance from the European Member States to halt gas imports from Russia. This and other green commitments have pushed the EU and the whole world to give renewed impetus to renewable energy. Moreover, the relation between climate and industry policies is increasingly evident. In a broader context of power competition trade, investment policies in the energy and climate sectors play an ambivalent role: energy dependencies have been conceptualized as mutually benefitting; yet, the current war unveils their risky nature. After a brief description of the renewables’ geopolitical dimensions, this article outlines what is at stake for the EU’s primary areas of energy cooperation. 

The Impact of Renewable Energy on Geopolitics

Renewable energies have the potential to transform interstate energy relations. Renewables have fundamentally distinct geographic and technological properties than coal, oil, and natural gas. Sources are plentiful but intermittent; their production is increasingly decentralized and utilizes rare earth resources in clean tech equipment and, lastly, their distribution is predominantly electric and entails tight management standards and long-distance losses. This contrasts sharply with fossil fuel resources’ geographically fixed and finite character, their reliance on massive centralized production and processing facilities, and their ease of storage and transit as solids, liquids, or gases worldwide.

The energy transition provides a chance to rethink and revise long-standing trading relationships. It also allows countries to engage in previously closed energy value chains. Significantly, the future of the energy world will likely redefine the concept of energy security. However, in this society, the impulse to produce things domestically will collide with the logic of size and global supply networks. The energy transition will rewire the planet, but how much of it will transcend international borders is still unclear. A crucial element will be the commerce of minerals, distinct from that of oil, gas, and coal in terms of location. Nonetheless, such business will follow a familiar pattern: resources will be harvested in one region of the world, transported to refineries and processing centers, and then transformed into final goods. Diversification, bottlenecks, extraction disputes, and rent-seeking dynamics will all be present, although with different details.

Such developments will require a significant shift in energy strategies, indicating that areas pursuing industrial policies rather than decarbonization may reap climatic advantages. The previous energy map established a link between natural resources and markets. Yet, the new energy map will be much more complex.

The Geopolitics of the Energy Transition and the EU

Bringing together the words ’geopolitics’ and ‘renewables’ leads to the study of renewables and related security risks, the effects of the energy transition on traditional energy relations, possibilities of mutually beneficial ties, and windows of opportunity for countries to move up in the global power hierarchy. The energy transition is indeed a process where the industrial advantage is likely to bring with itself political benefits and leadership status. In the context of the current war in Ukraine, this is becoming clearer every day. Yet, the energy transition is expected to become part of power competition as the most impellent challenge – posed by the war as well as climate change and the security risks with it – of our times and will likely create amities and enmities.

Take the example of Russia. In the past decade, Russia has perceived the EU’s energy transition problematically. The EU-Russia energy relationship was primarily based on gas, oil, and coal. Nonetheless, the association is characterized by different conceptions of energy and energy security, although both actors recognize the potential of energy interdependence. While the EU and European countries are more enthusiastic concerning the transition, Russia’s discourses are more conservative yet try to defend the role of natural gas in the energy transition.

While it is difficult to predict an essential role played by Russia nowadays, given the progressive isolation it is forced to, the energy wire will see China having high stakes in renewable developments and geopolitics. Concerning relations with the EU, some have argued that the energy transition is likely to be the determinant of the future of EU-China relations. Energy in EU-China relations does not play the same role as relations with Russia. While the renewable sector has encouraged interdependence between the two powers in the past, more recently, nationally oriented policies have hindered the precedent path.

Still, the energy transition will significantly shape relations between the EU and the Arab states. While Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are challenged by balancing relating with the US and China, managing regional crises, the pandemic, and containing Iran as the primary regional rival, the last point precisely is preventing some of the Arab states in the Gulf region to act assertively against Russia. Nonetheless, looking ahead to the 2020s, how those countries manage the energy transition will have consequences on internal and external political and economic environments. Especially Gulf countries envision a sustainable future, thus setting the stage for redrawing energy investments. In this context, the EU will play a crucial role, opening to the Gulf’s market interests and advancing regional security interests.


Overall, the current war is not only highlighting the strategic value of energy resources and energy ties but also how the transition to new energy systems is likely to rewire the world. In a context where the main political divide on the global stage is between liberal and illiberal forces and strong energy dependences revealed security threats, future systems of alliances will have to account for this. For the EU, the energy transition will have to deal with Russia, act as cohesively as possible, and strengthen its strategic thinking concerning big partners such as China and the Gulf States. The transitions’ stakes entail a strategic opportunity to avoid past errors.