A Ukrainian serviceman lands a drone during a demonstration this February. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Drones, phones and forums: how tech is shaping the war in Ukraine

With western companies pulling out of Russia, is a ‘tech gap’ opening up between Kyiv and Moscow? And what might fill it?
May 12, 2023

The men pull apart the smouldering drone. Near the front of the advanced Ukrainian army positions, they’re deep in a forest by the city of Kreminna in the Luhansk Oblast of eastern Ukraine, and they’ve just shot this Russian armament down from the sky. Going through the wreckage, their leader, Dmytro Podvorchanskiy (known as “Duke”) from the Dnipro-1 battalion, finds the usual tangle of wire and charred debris. But across the blackened metal he sees something different: the remnants of Hànzì characters.

“Another kamikaze drone made from cheap Chinese parts,” he thinks. He remembers a recent deployment in the Kurdyumovka area, just south of Bakhmut: the Russians were hunting for Ukrainian tanks; and trying to hit the protected positions of his comrades. He saw the same drones there, too.

I met Duke last spring on a base near the Russian positions on the eastern front. It was just months after Vladimir Putin launched his 24th February 2022 all-out invasion of Ukraine. I’ve been covering the war since it began in 2014, but February 2022 changed everything. This was the return to Europe of a sort of mass warfare not seen since the Second World War—but with a twist. Ukraine is now a battlefield of contrasting eras. The latest long-range, mostly western, missiles cannon into Russian tanks, while soldiers mow each other down with wood-handled AK-47s developed in the 1940s. The sky buzzes not with military aircraft, but drones, often cheap civilian ones adapted to war.

Whatever the war, the battle on the ground is always encased within a broader political fight. Beyond arming Ukraine, the UK, EU and US are using what non-military means they can to target Russia, chief among which are sanctions. These are broad. Over 10,000 Russian individuals, 3,500 companies, and 500 institutions have been sanctioned so far. These include asset freezes on the Russian Central Bank, while Russian private banks have been excluded from the Swift payments system, and Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and American Express have suspended operations in the country.

The west is also targeting Russia’s tech sector. Microsoft, IBM, Spotify, Apple, Samsung, Siemens, Adobe and Netflix, among others, have all pulled out of Russia. This has led to talk of a “tech gap” opening between not only Russia and the west, but Russia and Ukraine. The more the west sanctions the former and enables the latter, the argument goes, the greater the gap in technological capabilities that will open between the two countries. The mass of cheap Chinese and Iranian weaponry now making its way into Russian hands is proffered as evidence, but to what extent is this really happening? And, if it is, what can we expect to see over the coming months and, indeed, years?

“Ivan” is a Ukrainian IT specialist and he sees significant problems for the Russian tech sector. Most immediately, he tells me, young, qualified Russians are leaving their country. “No one wants to work with them,” he explains, “so they leave. They go to places like Georgia and Armenia. There is now a huge brain drain in Russia. If no one is left who can code, then IT is going to start to disappear.”

Microsoft has stopped selling its services and products in Russia. If it next pulls the Russian licences for its Visual Studio—the key tool for coding—then all Russian coders working with it will be shut out. That hasn’t happened yet, but already a cursory look at digital storefronts reveals that many apps are no longer available in Russia. The problem here is twofold. In the short term, if you cannot use the best apps, you gravitate to inferior ones. Instead of Microsoft’s Visual Studio, you end up working with some lower-quality analogues that will be available—and the work you produce is accordingly inferior.

But there is a longer-term danger, too. “Access to new information ceases,” says Ivan. “New technologies help you develop and solve more complicated problems. They basically train your mind. Think of an iPhone: you use it for three years; it then becomes slow because it’s overtaken by new tech that requires better processors and better hardware. If your development of tech infrastructure stops, you don’t stay still—you regress; you get slower.”

The Russian Army is, as I have experienced first-hand, fighting under severe limitations in Ukraine. Beyond the endless stories of ill-equipped troops, bereft of even basics such as proper boots (a problem that also afflicts the Ukrainians), they are also lacking in technology. When I was recently on the frontlines in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the soldiers told me about how Russian forces send waves of men toward the Ukrainian positions—something they have named “meat waves”. There are many reasons commanders employ these tactics, but tech limitations and scarce military resources are almost certainly a factor.

Kyiv, meanwhile, is using US-developed ClearviewAI to recognise killed soldiers’ faces, to help inform their families. Even the Ukrainian internet is getting a boost from Elon Musk’s Starlink, a satellite internet service that, because it comes from space and not through cables, cannot be easily destroyed. This has proved vital on the frontlines, as soldiers there repeatedly told me—until February 2023, it was even guiding Ukrainian drones. The Ukrainian (but US-supported) app Diia, originally used as a governmental system to manage licence permits, has been repurposed to report Russian troop movements.

If you want to see these differences at play, then look towards the recent Ukrainian successes in intercepting enemy comms. Russian soldiers often use unencrypted communications on their personal smartphones. With the help of the American AI company Primer—which is able to monitor and pass on relevant information obtained from Russian soldiers, including their communications—the Ukrainians were able to strike (according to Russia’s own count; though some estimates put it higher) 89 Russian soldiers in their barracks at the very start of this year. Russia says the soldiers were successfully targeted due to their “mobile phone use”.

There is something else. Whenever I embed with Ukrainian soldiers, what strikes me about many of them is their educational and professional background. In civilian life, Duke is an IT consultant—and he is far from unique. Skills such as writing code are not just about numbers; they also teach you how to realise ideas and put together concepts. Across the front, I can see the fruits of such knowledge. Managers who become soldiers still manage, and this helps enable the successful prosecution of warfare. The Russians, meanwhile, are often sending their worst: prisoners and addicts.

But there are dangers. Not least overconfidence or emotion born of the understandable desire to see Kyiv defeat its Russian enemy. Judgement can become clouded. It’s true that the Ukrainians are fighting well, and the Russians badly. But much of this is down to circumstance. The Ukrainians are fighting for their survival; Russians because they’ve been ordered to. It reminds me of something that the Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, a war veteran, told me before he became a minister. “Britain did not go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The British army went on a special operation. This matters. Right now, the Ukrainian nation is at war, while Russian troops are on a special operation. It’s nation versus army.” He’s right—and the effects are clear to see.

The question is: how permanent is all of this? For a start, when it comes to the sanctions, many companies are clearly leaving the door open. Experts believe Apple and Samsung will come back, while Renault still retains an option to buy back its interest in the Russian car manufacturer Lada until 2028.

Then there is also the fact that, despite many of the headlines and their often poor performance, the Russians are emphatically not stupid. For all the talk of their imminent collapse, it’s over a year on from February 2022, and they’re still in the field, and with hundreds of thousands of newly mobilised men to boot. Duke told me that while Russia faces many problems in the technological sphere, it is also “progressive” in many areas, including radar warfare and medium-range drones. “Yes, some technologies are not easy for them to get,” he said. “It has become more difficult for Russia to acquire thermal imaging technologies or optics. But they find ways.”

He’s right. Despite the sanctions, tech components from western companies continue to flow in. The semiconductor manufacturers Intel and Analog Devices continued to work in Russia throughout 2022. Indeed, the value of Intel imports to Russia tripled from $30.38m in April to $90.26m in September. Intel could only wanly comment that it took all this “very seriously,” and that it is “looking into the matter”.

Then there is Russia’s own response. When western companies pulled out of Russia, the country responded, in March 2022, by banning Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram under an “Extremism Law”. Google and Apple were fined for refusing to bring Russian users’ databases into newly annexed territory, while SoundCloud was blocked for “calls for mass riots and participation in unauthorised actions”.

What’s more, as well as its legal ripostes to the western pull-outs, Russia has instituted an unofficial policy of what is being called “Zamestim”, meaning “we will replace”. Zamestim is also an acronym for some of the companies that have left (Zara, Adidas, McDonalds, Epson, Skoda, TotalEnergies, Ikea, MilkyWay) and it offers a clue to the future.

For an autocracy seeking to control its own people, an exodus of western technology can be a blessing. It is not on heavily censored national media where young Russians are likely to encounter anti-Kremlin views or the—far more dangerous for Moscow—accoutrements that make up the much-desired western lifestyle, but on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

In his new book Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth, Ian Garner astutely examines Russian youth’s growing embrace of fascism. Key to this has been, since 24th February 2022, the flooding of Russian social media platforms such as VK (the Russian Facebook rip off) with government-run groups promoting both the war in Ukraine and a general anti-western worldview. Where once Russian youth streamed Miley Cyrus and looked to Kanye, now they stream Wagner and covet Kyiv.

In other words, the Kremlin is turning tech sanctions to its own advantage—helping to embed its rule into the country culturally. Even on foreign apps such as the messaging service Telegram, Russian narratives are thriving. Telegram limits content moderation, which has always allowed Russian disinformation to thrive there. But since the sanctions, Russian Telegram users have spiked—pro-Kremlin posts are now shared at double the rate of anti-Kremlin posts.

And for the things that the Russian state can’t do by itself, allies such as China are stepping in. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, China has accounted for 72 per cent of Russian computer and telecommunications imports. Azu International, a wholesale trader of IT products, exported at least $20m of IT components to Russia from February to December 2022. Chinese smartphones now have 95 per cent market share in Russia, up from just 40 per cent in December 2021.

Perhaps, then, what is emerging between Russia and the west, centred on Ukraine, is not so much a tech “gap” but a “schism”. If Russia is arguably falling behind western technology, it is unquestionably separating from it. The result is not mere atrophy. Instead, state-dominated social media spaces could help to entrench the Kremlin’s rule for decades to come. Alongside this, there’s a burgeoning network of tech partners, led by China, that—avowedly—seek to overturn the US-led international order. Russia cannot match America militarily, economically or in terms of its internal technological development, but with China on board it will have a better chance of at least keeping up, while carving out its own online spaces, which it has long wanted anyway.

Duke was, in the end, optimistic but extremely cautious. “The problems Russia is facing are not enough for Ukraine, or the west, to win,” he concluded. “Unfortunately, it’s not only we Ukrainians who are learning in this war, the Russians are also learning, and very quickly. If they are not defeated now, they will only become a greater threat—not just to us, but to the entire western world.”