Russia at the Vanishing Point

A Fatal Innovation Gap

Putin’s latest invasion of Ukraine makes it clear that Russia can’t innovate. In war, this can be fatal.

Though the Russia defence sector yields billions for its state coffers, it only spends 1 per cent on R&D. The majority of Russian factories and equipment are outdated and this constricts how much they can make. A recent push for modernisation from Putin has propelled the sector to make progress on AI, hypersonic tech and unmanned military drones. But it’s not enough to close the gap left by the UK and the US. The quality of products from China doesn’t match the goods they were used to receiving from Ukraine or the West. Ultimately this could lead to breakdown in machinery and an added cost in servicing weapons down the line. There are also falling standards in STEM education and the sector has amassed such heft debts that the Deputy Prime Minister Yuki Borisov once said it was living “hand to mouth” and unable to innovate.

Russian Backwardness and Corruption; Tech Stagnation

Russia is exhausting its stocks of missiles, according to the April 16 “War Bulletin” produced by the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and shared with The War Zone. “Its military-industrial complex has to work 24/7 to replenish them.”

That issue of the War Bulletin claimed “over 20 Russian military enterprises were forced to suspend their activities in whole or in part due to shortage of parts and components, as well as rising prices due to sanctions.” Those companies include the research and production enterprise Vimpel, which produces aircraft missiles, and the onlyRussian company that makes tanks, Uralvagonzavod, the largest such firm in the world.

Russia Losing Weapons Arsenal Stockpile; Cannot Replace

Failure on an Awesome Scale

Finland’s Innovation Should Scare Russia

Russian Military Smoke and Mirrors

Russia’s Technological Crisis is Worsening

Russia’s Artificial Intelligence Dead On Arrival

…the effects of the invasion will be felt in the AI ecosystem for a long time, especially with so many IT workers leaving the country, either because of the massive impact on the high-tech economy, or because they disagree with the war, or both.

One of the most-felt sanctions aftereffects has been the severing of international cooperation on AI among Russian universities and research instructions, which earlier was enshrined as one of the most important drivers for domestic AI R&D, and reinforced by support from the Kremlin. For most high-tech institutions around the world, the impact of civilian destruction across Ukraine by the Russian military greatly outweighs the need to engage Russia on AI. At the same time, much of the Russian military AI R&D took place in a siloed environment—in many cases behind a classified firewall and without significant public-private cooperation—so it’s hard to estimate just how sanctions will affect Russian military AI efforts. 

While many in Russia now look to China as a substitute for departed global commercial relationships and products, it’s not clear if Beijing could fully replace the software and hardware products and services that left Russian markets at this point. 

Recent events may not stop Russian civilians and military experts from discussing how AI influences the conduct of war and peace—but the practical implementation of these deliberations may become increasingly more difficult for a country under global high-tech isolation.

Artificial Intelligence in Russia: What Might Have Been

Russia is feeling the sting of international sanctions and corporate withdrawals across a broad range of industries and technologies. The loss of cooperation between Exxon, BP, Shell, and other international oil companies means that many of Russia’s most technically challenging oil fields will be shut in for years or lost entirely. Russia’s ability to produce petroleum at the high levels of the past 10 to 15 years is being lost for reasons both upstream and downstream. If Russia ever recovers from this setback, it will take many years. Losing its cash cow will hurt.

Russia at the Vanishing Point

The people of Russia are slowly becoming aware of how isolated they have become. Not so much from other nations and peoples of the world, but from each other. Russia is a huge country, and its people are widely separated geographically. That is not a problem as long as there is cohesion of meaning and purpose. But as the bloody war to the west drags on bringing fearsome personal losses and a worsening of suffering, schisms between Russians with diverging personal and family fortunes can only grow worse.

Faced with looming economic catastrophe, the state seems likely to aim its efforts at those Russians who can be relied on to support the regime provided they are offered enough cash and other basic rewards to do so. These are the broad masses whose loyalty must be bought with social payments and salaries in the state-dependent sectors and who must be fed a steady diet of propaganda in order to stay in line. Yet as the growing effects of sanctions set in, this project has become far more expensive and the resources for supporting these people may begin to dry up. This will be especially true if Russia loses the ability to sell oil and gas.

Over time, the accumulating effects of the war could erode public trust in Putin. As the military campaign and the immense propaganda machine that has gone with it continue to operate at full tilt, social cohesion will begin to break down, and the forces that have traditionally sustained the economy will no longer function.

Putin has hit a dead end, and Ukraine, along with the rest of the world, is suffering as a result. But in the long term, it is a disaster for the Russian people, too. The nation that contributed so much to world culture—that produced so many great novelists and thinkers and three Nobel Peace Prize winners—will now also be for a long time associated with Vladimir Putin. The West has to understand that, as banal as it sounds, Putin’s system and the Russian nation are not one and the same. And this understanding will be crucial for building a post-Putin Russia. Otherwise, the country will continue to be regarded as a hostile enclave, to be shunned by the world.

Russia at War With Itself

In Russia’s near-abroad, Putin’s worst nightmares are coming true. He wanted to push NATO back and destroy NATO’s cohesiveness. Instead, Putin is helping to change the minds of two local nations that had been rejecting NATO membership. Sweden and Finland are each more innovative and disciplined than Russia. They are bad enemies for Putin to make.

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A backward Russia is isolating itself from the more advanced free world and its affluent and innovative markets. China has huge problems of its own, and cannot come close to filling the gap that Russia is left with. Until Putin is gone, Russians will suffer in their deluded isolation and backwardness. Particularly if they continue to conduct genocidal wars against more civilized neighbors.

Parallels Between the Defense of Ukraine and Taiwan

Both Taiwan and Ukraine face existential threats from tyrannical dictatorships in neighboring lands. But Ukraine is physically connected to Russia and to Russia’s current puppet Belarus. Stepping over the border between countries was convenient for Putin’s forces. Taiwan is roughly 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait from mainland communist China. This changes the battle plan of defense considerably.

Watching Russia falter in Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping may conclude that if he decides to invade Taiwan, he cannot hope to achieve victory with little or limited fighting. The risk is that this will lead him to prepare a much bigger assault, deploying far heavier and more concentrated firepower to batter the island into submission.

In response to this possibility, a number of recent assessments have called for Taiwan to pursue an “asymmetric” dragon-choking “porcupine strategy” prioritizing “a large number of small things” for its defense. In short, turn the anti-access/area denial issue on its head and present People’s Liberation Army forces with multiple, numerous, hard-to-counter defenses that specifically target key Chinese military weaknesses. Drawing on Ukraine’s experience, there are eight concrete areas where the United States and Taiwan should now invest to make the island tougher to invade, even harder to subdue, and harder still to occupy and govern: ballistic missile defense, air defense, sea-denial fires, shore-denial fires, mine warfare, information warfare, civil defense, and the resilience of critical infrastructure.

Taiwan’s Existential Challenge
  • Ballistic Missile Defense
  • Air Defense
  • Sea-Denial Fire Power
  • Shore Denial Fire Power
  • Mine Warfare
  • Information Warfare
  • Civil Defense
  • Critical Infrastructure Resilience

Looking at the list above, it is easy to see the parallels between Ukraine’s defense needs and Taiwan’s defense needs. While Taiwan can be invaded mainly by sea, China is a wealthier and presumably more capable invader than Russia has proven to be. Taiwan will have its hands full. But it is likely to be better prepared than Ukraine was.

China’s Innovation Crisis: China Has to Steal Technology

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2 Responses to Russia at the Vanishing Point

  1. David says:

    Just curious, what do you think of John Mearsheimer’s analysis:

    Is he wrong on this?? He says the West bears a lot of responsibility here.

    Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine:

    • alfin2101 says:

      The best description of Mearsheimer’s viewpoint comes from Peter Zeihan: It’s horseshit.
      Putin was provoked, of course. He was provoked by the apparent weakness of his victim, as all violent rapists and other criminals are provoked.
      For a Russian man, Putin is quite old, and is being thrown around on the judo mat by women!
      He had been planning to invade a lot more countries, but if he gets bogged down in Ukraine he will find it harder to deal with all the rest on his dance card.

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