A Bayraktar TB2 combat drone donated to Ukraine being presented in Šiauliai, Lithuania, July 2022
A Bayraktar TB2 combat drone donated to Ukraine being presented in Šiauliai, Lithuania, July 2022
Ints Kalnins / Reuters

At the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most experts expected that Kyiv would fall quickly. Ukrainian forces were fighting against a military that was bigger and better armed. Russia’s troops had more combat experience and funding. The question was not if Moscow’s forces would depose the Ukrainian government but when regime change would happen.

Of course, Kyiv didn’t fall. Instead, the Ukrainian military stopped Russia’s assault on the capital and forced a retreat. Russia downsized its initial mission from wholesale conquest, and the war now mostly consists of grinding offensives and counteroffensives in Ukraine’s east and south. The question is no longer how long Kyiv can hold out. It is whether the Ukrainian government can reclaim occupied land.

There are several reasons for Ukraine’s surprising success. The Russian military’s logistical incompetence, its puzzling inability to secure early air superiority, and low troop morale all played a part. So did Western support for Ukraine and the sheer tenacity of the country’s soldiers. But these explanations do not tell the full story. The Ukrainian military deserves recognition not just for its troops’ motivation but also for its technical savvy. It has used cutting-edge technologies and adapted existing capabilities in creative new ways, on and off the kinetic battlefield. It has deployed loitering munitions—missiles with the ability to stay on station until an operator locates a target—and modified commercial drones that can destroy Russian troops and equipment on the cheap. It has tapped commercial satellite data to track Russian troop movements in near real time. And Kyiv has wisely used artificial intelligence, in conjunction with this satellite imagery, to create software that helps artillery locate, aim, and destroy targets in the most efficient and lethal manner possible.

Ukraine’s success with these technologies doesn’t come because the tools are fancier or more complex than the ones Russia has deployed. Quite the contrary. Many of the technologies that Ukraine has used are very affordable and simple to deploy. In fact, the convenience of these tools is precisely what makes them so powerful. Because its technology is easy to operate, Ukraine can draw on soldiers with little training and even ordinary civilians to win on the battlefield. In doing so, the country has highlighted a bigger trend in warfare, one with implications that extend beyond this conflict: the democratization of military power. Ukraine’s tools have expanded the warfighting beyond the physical battlefield—and beyond traditional military and state actors—to allow everyday citizens, private companies, and civilian institutions to help in the fight. It’s a trend that will change how other countries conduct wars moving forward.

PEOPLE POWER

The conflict in Ukraine is an outlier. Most major modern wars have been between powerful states and weak states, between two weak states, or between states or nonstate actors. But unlike Iraq and the United States, both Russia and Ukraine are large countries with well-equipped militaries. As a result, the Ukrainian steppes have been transformed into a proving ground for next-generation technologies and military innovations.

Most significant, the conflict in Ukraine represents a sort of coming of age and maturing of many advanced technologies previously thought of as more niche, from drones to loitering munitions to commercial satellites. That’s because Ukraine has wielded them with visible success. The country, for instance, has upended conventional wisdom that drones will struggle to operate in the face of air defenses. It has proved that commercially owned or open-source data are, in fact, accessible and useful sources of battlefield intelligence.

Consider Ukraine’s deployment of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. The TB2 is an unlikely hero: cheap, hard to hide, and plodding. But these drones have been very successful at neutralizing even slower or stationary targets, such as towed artillery or armored vehicles. In March, for instance, Ukraine used the weapons to attack a Russian military convoy north of Kyiv with vicious efficiency, helping force Russia’s retreat. It deployed a TB2 to transmit the coordinates for and film the sinking of a Russian rescue tug. Ukraine has also creatively turned the drone’s weaknesses into assets; the loud, lumbering weapon served as the perfect distraction for the Moskva’s air defenses while Ukraine reportedly took the ship out with two Neptune missiles.

The Russian-Ukrainian war is also the first conflict in which both sides are using artificial intelligence, particularly machine- and deep-learning algorithms. Russia has used artificial intelligence to carry out cyberattacks, to create deepfake videos that show Zelensky surrendering, and to promote other pro-Russian propaganda. Ukraine, meanwhile, has been using facial recognition technology to identify Russian operatives and soldiers, combat misinformation, and—with the help of the U.S. military—generate models of Russian tactics and strategy that it can use for analysis and strategic planning. (It is important, however, to note that neither Russia nor Ukraine has used true AI-enabled weapons, such as a weapon that could select and engage targets without human direction; no state has.)

The conflict in Ukraine represents a coming of age for many advanced technologies.

The underlying basis for most of these technologies originates in commercial and academic sectors, allowing them to be rapidly developed and distributed. This has made it easier for Ukraine to field a wider array of military capabilities and find more operators. For as little as $600, ordinary Ukrainians have used 3D printers and cheap fragmentation grenades to turn toy drones—the kinds typically used for taking dramatic aerial Instagram photos—into a platform for carrying out stealthy, short-range precision attacks. The volunteer Ukrainian drone squad Aerorozvidka, for example, has used commercial drones to drop small bombs onto the sunroofs of Russian vehicles. In early June, a 15-year-old boy also used a toy drone to help the Ukrainian military direct strikes against an approaching Russian convoy. Even this year’s Eurovision song contest played a role in drone warfare: Ukraine won by a landslide, and the country’s artist sold his trophy online to purchase three Ukrainian-produced PD2 drones.

As the Eurovision sale shows, Ukraine has used digital technologies to create and then tap into what Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, called “a worldwide audience that wants to help.” Volunteer hacker armies have employed their digital savvy to shut down Russian websites. Ukraine’s Digital Ministry has been able to secure access to private, civilian-owned satellite networks and real-time, high-resolution imagery, and it is pressuring private tech companies such as Apple, Google, Meta, and Twitter to restrict access and shut down operations in Russia. (Peter Singer, a professor at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at New America, called this campaign the geopolitical equivalent of “canceling.”) Ukrainian citizens have digitally broadcast footage of the fighting, including over TikTok, to help their country’s war planners.

The ultimate result of all these changes is a dramatic diffusion of warfare, one that makes the traditional means of measuring the balance of forces far less relevant. Most of the world was persuaded that Moscow would win its invasion because when they counted up the number of tanks and soldiers Russia and Ukraine had, the former clearly outpaced the latter. But in this new era of warfare, such figures are just one part of the calculus.

PROVING GROUND

Many of the technologies that Ukraine has used are not entirely new to warfare. The TB2 drone, for example, was wielded effectively by Azerbaijan against Armenia throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. Loitering munitions have existed for years, if not in the sophisticated form that they do today. The Israeli Defense Forces used multiple machine-learning-based algorithms to identify targets during its 2021 operation in Gaza. And although technology is important, it is not a silver bullet. Ukraine can’t win simply because its air force has lots of TB2 drones, loitering munitions, or a digitally savvy population. Emerging systems will not do away with tanks or render current supply chains, operational concepts, stockpiles, and force doctrines irrelevant.

But Ukraine’s widespread and successful use of newer systems is placing emerging tech into the military mainstream. There’s a reason why global demand for the TB2 has suddenly skyrocketed. Countries such as Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates have reportedly started the process of purchasing the drone after seeing its impact in Ukraine, making its manufacturer Turkey’s top defense and aerospace exporter. Even larger players are becoming fans of Ukrainian-used systems. France, for example, has suddenly fast-tracked an order of U.S.-made Switchblades—a loitering munition that Ukraine has deployed to kill Russian troops. And Ukraine has demonstrated to the world that these technologies can be effective when used in tandem with other capabilities or when deployed in roles that go beyond their initial intended uses.

Modern tools can disperse military power among millions of people.

Ukraine will continue to be a proving ground. As U.S. Army Major Brennan Deveraux argued, the continuous influx of loitering munitions into Ukraine will put them “to the ultimate test,” as the weapons are introduced for the first time at a wider scale. Artificial intelligence is a much more immature technology; its use in the current conflict is still quite limited, with its most tantalizing applications—coordinating drone swarms or assisting human pilots in carrying out air operations—still on the drawing board. But in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the state leading in AI will become the “ruler of the world,” and since then, Russia has worked to advance its development of military AI-enabled capabilities. It is not impossible to imagine that Moscow could test more of them on the Ukrainian battlefield in the months or years to come.

Yet even if no further AI weapons are unfurled in Ukraine, the war has demonstrated how modern tools can disperse military power among millions of people. The democratized nature of this conflict is not without precedent. In On War, the famed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz told a similar tale from the nineteenth century. According to Clausewitz, when Austria and Prussia prepared to fight against France in the French Revolutionary Wars, they assumed it would simply be a matter of their armies versus France’s. They did not think they would be fighting against the whole of France’s population. But the French people were enthusiastic participants in the wars, and so Austria and Prussia faced the “utmost peril,” Clausewitz wrote, as the “the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance.”

The trap that Prussia and Austria fell into—simply measuring the balance of traditional forces—is the same one that contributed to the general belief that Russia would overtake Ukraine in a matter of days. But Russia hasn’t, in no small part because Ukraine has used general purpose technologies, developed by private sector firms, to expand both what it can do in war and who can do it. It has proved that a growing number of actors can acquire useful military technology. It has shown that states can fight in new arenas, with the help of civilian institutions and ordinary individuals. It has given itself more opportunities to succeed on what would otherwise be a lopsided battlefield. And in Ukraine’s fight for its own democracy, it has managed to democratize warfighting itself, setting a new precedent for twenty-first century warfare.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now