As a test bed for new technologies, the conflict prompts perverse enthusiasm from companies — and worries about over-dependence
August 16, 2023
The writer is international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and special adviser to Margrethe Vestager
Technologies are playing a prominent role on Ukraine’s battlefields as the country continues to defend its homeland — and European destiny — against Russia’s war of aggression. Civilian and military technologies are being tested and used in new ways. Drones inform troops about the frontier, AI labels targets, and facial recognition systems identify fallen Russian soldiers. Some corporate leaders can hardly hide their excitement about the war as an opportunity.
In the months leading up to the invasion, analysts imagined the first full blown cyber war, given Russia’s record of wreaking havoc against Ukraine with NotPetya in 2017. That ransomware, launched by Russia, targeted government departments, media organisations and power companies, causing global damage of over $10bn. The worst fears of such a cyber war have certainly not materialised. Ukraine has proven resilient, and the role of technology is not what was anticipated.
Today, we see technologies integrated with battlefield methods. This is a hybrid conflict, in which the lines between civilian and military uses of technologies are blurred. Drones are used in massive numbers for reconnaissance flights as well as to deliver explosives. Their use is so substantial that Ukraine reportedly loses around 10,000 of them a month.
Among some business leaders there is a perverse sense of enthusiasm for testing out new products. Alex Karp claims his company, Palantir, is making a decisive difference in favour of Ukraine, for example through their AI that supports identifying targets. Since shaking hands with Volodymyr Zelenskyy in June 2022, the company has opened an office in Kyiv. Karp has said: “the power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems is now so great that it equates to having tactical nuclear weapons against an adversary with only conventional ones.” (So far the fear of conventional nuclear weapons is still having a more tangible effect.)
Former Google chief Eric Schmidt took a trip to Ukraine, where he met staff in President Zelenskyy’s office and the country’s defence minister. He scoped out future investment opportunities and is now supporting a local start-up incubator for military technologies. Schmidt spoke of the first “networked war” and praised Elon Musk for providing satellite internet connections through his company Starlink to the Kyiv government.
US military leaders are less enthusiastic about the developing dependence on commercial tech firms. They worry about Elon Musk’s dominance in satellite internet constellations. Musk denied a request by the Ukrainian military to turn on Starlink near Crimea, for example, and promoted a so-called “peace plan” that might as well have been written by Russian president Vladimir Putin himself. Still, Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov emphasised: “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication infrastructure now.”
The controversial AI company Clearview is facing fines for violating privacy rules in Europe, but proved keen to offer its technologies to hundreds of Ukrainian officials. They use it, for example, to identify Russian soldiers who have been killed, or those still alive and committing war crimes or looting. The free use of its systems in Ukraine is aimed, no doubt, not only at supporting Ukraine but also at polishing Clearview’s embattled reputation.
William LaPlante, US under-secretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, poured some cold water on all this, tempering the hype from tech CEOs talking up the role their products might play in deciding the outcome of the war. He warned that fighting is not done by Silicon Valley “even though they’re gonna to try to take credit for it.”
Still, Ukrainian officials hope that the influx of the west’s technology companies will have a lasting positive impact on the country. Nursing the objective that one day they might develop a Silicon Valley of their own, the government is banking on being hub for all kinds of innovative technologies that can be developed from the military technologies they need to defend the country now.
Fedorov has compared what could be achieved in Ukraine to the “Israeli model” of high-tech business growth. He has presided over the digitisation of government services ranging from permit applications to citizen services and IDs. But for a start-up nation to flourish, the country first needs to successfully stave off Russian invaders so that its people can focus on starting companies instead of fighting in the trenches to defend their country against artillery and bombs.