Ukraine Is Losing the Drone War

How Kyiv Can Close the Innovation Gap With Russia

By Eric Schmidt

It’s winter in Ukraine again. The snow is piling up, the temperature is dropping, and the days are short. During the long nights, nearly two years into the full-scale war, the skies above the entire 600-mile frontline are filled with Ukrainian and Russian drones. In past centuries, the machinery of war would grind to a halt when harsh conditions pushed human endurance to its limits. The two most famous military campaigns in this part of the world—Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941—succumbed to devastating casualties as the season changed. Today, the hapless infantry who still fill trenches and strongpoints across Ukraine are contending with the same unforgiving winter. But the drones that have come to dominate this war are limited only by their battery lives—shortened by the cold—and the availability of night-vision cameras.

In the early months of the war, the frontlines shifted rapidly as Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russian offensive. Ukraine held the upper hand in drone warfare, adapting commercial technologies and introducing new weapons to keep Russian forces on the back foot. Since October 2022, however, little territory has changed hands. The Ukrainian army has scored some recent wins, including precise attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and on targets deep inside Russian territory. The Russian army, too, has faced headwinds, losing the equivalent of almost 90 percent of the soldiers and equipment it began the war with, according to some reports. But Russia has also adjusted its strategy, and the conflict is now moving in its favor. Moscow shifted its defense industry to a war footing, and current military spending is more than twice prewar levels. It has also launched thousands of drones—including the Iranian-designed Shahed model now assembled in both Iran and Russia—with new capabilities to target expensive Western-supplied defenses in Ukraine.

After Russian troops first marched on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces were praised for the technological ingenuity that helped them thwart their more powerful invader. Now, Russia has caught up in the innovation contest and Ukraine is struggling to maintain the flow of military assistance from its external partners. In order to undercut Russia’s advantage in this phase of the war, Ukraine and its allies will need to not just ramp up defense production but also invest in developing and scaling technologies that can counter Russia’s formidable new drones.

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