Russian great power identity in the debate on “killer robots”

Russia prominently opposes new regulations for autonomous weapons systems (AWS), or so-called “killer robots” which can select and attack a target without human intervention. In a new article, Anna Nadibaidze explores the deeply rooted identity-related factors underpinning the Russian position in the global debate on AWS held at the United Nations.

Reports about the use of weapons systems with autonomous features, specifically the Russian-produced KUB loitering munition, in the war in Ukraine have strengthened the already existing concerns about the role of military autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) in warfare. Only a few days before these reports came in, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapons systems was meeting in Geneva to discuss potential ways forward on the regulation of AWS. The Russian delegation has blocked any kind of substantive progress by constantly claiming to have been “discriminated” against by the measures taken by the EU following Moscow’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout the years of the GGE sessions, which have been taking place within the framework of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) since 2016, Russia has been vocal about its belief that technological developments in the areas of AI and robotics do not make it necessary to adopt any kind of new regulation on AWS because the latter are sufficiently regulated by current international law.

Given that the CCW operates by consensus principles, de facto giving a veto power to all states, Russia’s agreement to develop a potential new instrument is needed to move forward in the debate, which has had only a discussion mandate so far. Approximately 30-40 states parties, along with several civil society organizations, are arguing for the necessity of a new legally binding regulation on AWS. Can Russia’s position be reconciled with theirs?

Great power identity in Russia’s position on AWS

In order to understand whether Russia could potentially agree to developing a new legally binding instrument, it is vital to examine its position in depth and from different perspectives.

Russia is one of the key developers of weapons systems with autonomous features and has shown strong interest in integrating higher levels of autonomy and AI as part of the modernization of its armed forces. From the rationalist perspective, the Russian position in the GGE debate is associated with strategic interests and quest to gain strategic advantage without any international restrictions.

While I do not dismiss these arguments, I argue for a more thorough investigation of Russia’s position and exploring deeply rooted factors, namely the Russian leadership’s self-perception as a historical great power, which has been a prominent feature of Russian foreign policy, especially since Vladimir Putin came to power.

My analysis of statements that the Russian Federation delivered to the CCW from 2014 to 2022 demonstrates that two integral principles of Russian great power identity have been guiding its position in the global debate on AWS. First, Russia promotes a multipolar world order based on many centers of power. Second, it seeks to ensure recognition of its perceived parity with other great powers and its equal participation in global affairs. These principles feature not only in the literature about Russian foreign policy, but also in its language used in statements on AWS at the CCW meetings.

Russian discourse on the global governance of AWS displays worries about the “politicization” of the debate and fears that the discussion would be monopolized by some states without taking into account others’ (Russian) interests and opinions. Russian statements display worries about the adoption of a polarized definition of AWS, for instance, when stating, “it is unacceptable to artificially divide weapons into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones based on the political preferences of certain States”.

The Russian conception of human control, a key element in the AWS discussion, is based on sovereignty. Russia believes that every state should decide on its definition of human involvement in the use of force and weapons systems. While it “does not doubt the necessity of maintaining human control over the machine”, it finds it unacceptable to be imposed with universal definitions and argues for “specific forms and methods of such control” to “be left to the discretion of States”.

Moreover, the Russian position presents technology in a positive light, not agreeing with what it perceives as “alarmist assessments” about fully autonomous weapons inevitably emerging. Russian delegations have constantly pointed out the benefits of military autonomy and warned against making hasty decisions which could “undermine the ongoing research in the field of peaceful robotics and AI”.

What does this mean for the future of the GGE debate?

As I show in my article, Russia’s position on AWS is deeply rooted and is not only guided by strategic costs/benefits analyses. It is facilitated by the Russian leadership’s strong belief about Russia being a great power in the post-Cold War multipolar world, on par with other great powers and deserving recognition, especially in topics touching upon international security.

With current ongoing tensions, the Russian leadership increasingly perceives any action from states it classifies as “unfriendly nations” as attempts to isolate Russia from global governance, or so-called “Russophobic” actions.

These identity-related factors make the Russian position on AWS more intractable and harder to resolve, especially for campaigners using humanitarian-based arguments to raise concerns about the development of “killer robots”, for instance their threat to human rights and human dignity. With its self-perception of a great power and guarantor of global security, Russia is likely to be more open to security-based arguments such as those pointing out the risks of AWS to strategic stability.

In Russia’s view, the CCW represents the perfect balance between humanitarian concerns and national security interests, while the consensus voting rule fits with its broader concerns with being able to have its say. It is therefore unlikely to accept an independent process outside of the CCW, as suggested by several civil society organizations in light of the stalled process at the GGE, or any process which would strip it of its veto power. If an independent discussion were to take place, Russia’s self-perception as a great power and the importance that it attributes to being seen as indispensable in multilateral negotiations is likely to lead it to criticize the process and accuse its organizers of disrupting global security.

Anna Nadibaidze is a Ph.D. Research Fellow at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark and researcher for the European Research Council funded AutoNorms project. She is the author of “Great power identity in Russia’s position on autonomous weapons systems”, Contemporary Security Policy, and the report “Russian perceptions of military AI, automation, and autonomy”, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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