Cover: Russia's Asymmetric Response to 21st Century Strategic Competition

Russia's Asymmetric Response to 21st Century Strategic Competition

Robotization of the Armed Forces

Published Mar 13, 2023

by Krystyna Marcinek, Eugeniu Han


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Research Questions

  1. What is the Russian vision for robotization of the Armed Forces?
  2. How has the vision for robotization been implemented?
  3. Under what conditions can Russia deliver on its vision for robotization?

The ultimate outcome of the 2022 war in Ukraine and its strategic and economic ramifications are yet to be determined. Arguably, Russia will have to rethink, reform, and rebuild its military while facing even more binding financial constraints under a new wave of sanctions and export controls. In this new environment, Russia's political and military leadership likely will have to prioritize some modernization programs and abandon others. In the past, some Russian military strategists have said that the country's military should not match its adversaries' capabilities; instead, it should seek an asymmetric response by developing capabilities that make its adversaries' high-tech weapon systems economically unjustifiable. In recent years, there seemed to be a growing consensus in Russia that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics — enabling relatively cheap but capable force — might just be such an asymmetric response. Moreover, in the face of the unsatisfactory performance and low morale of the Russian troops in Ukraine, Moscow might see the robotization of the Armed Forces as a way to alleviate its dependence on manpower.

The authors of this report look at Russian views of military applications of robotics and AI and study Russia's motivations for the development of these capabilities. They investigate the degree of autonomy that the Russian military would be willing to delegate to machines, and to what extent the military is willing to replace (rather than augment) human soldiers. Finally, they assess whether Moscow has delivered — or can deliver — on its robotization vision.

Key Findings

Drones, robots, and the algorithms supporting them are supposed to be cheap force multipliers that increase the effectiveness of military operations while decreasing personnel losses and reliance on manpower

  • The Russian military seeks to substitute unmanned capabilities for soldiers rather than augment and support capabilities that soldiers have already.
  • Military drones and robots are expected to take over numerous combat, reconnaissance, and support roles. Russian leaders might endorse fully autonomous systems if such systems become technologically feasible.

The realization of Russia's vision for the robotization of its Armed Forces would entail a major shift in technological sophistication

  • Russia's efforts still lag behind the United States, Israel, China, and others. The first Russian armed drone entered into service in late 2020.
  • Russia uses its combat deployments to test new systems and concepts of operations.

Russia's long-term ability to deliver on its robotization vision will depend on it building an innovation system that uses the power of private firms, academia, the military-industrial complex, and the Armed Forces to develop next-generation AI-driven platforms

  • The key inputs of the innovation system will be negatively affected by the sanctions and export controls that were imposed on Russia in 2022.
  • The Russian government is already employing sticks and carrots to limit brain drain.
  • Russia might try to employ cyber theft, industrial espionage, and covert supply chains to access necessary software and hardware.
  • Innovation networks and the institutional environment likely will remain weaknesses of the Russian innovation system, but Russia might seek collaboration with China.


  • Some of the tools to hinder Russia's ability to deliver on its robotization vision are immigration policies to prevent brain drain and export controls enforcement to limit the development and production of qualitatively new capabilities. In the latter category, Russia may go back to the Soviet Union's toolkit, which should be extensively studied by the intelligence community.
  • To hedge against the possibly that Russia develops pockets of excellence in artificial intelligence and robotics, more research should be conducted to understand where Russia could see potential windows of opportunity to employ them. Elimination of such windows of opportunity could entail sharing counter-drone capabilities.

This publication was funded by the Russia Strategic Initiative, United States European Command, and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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