Opinion How the algorithm tipped the balance in Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier flies a drone during an operation against Russian positions in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine on Nov. 19. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

First of two parts. Read Part 2.

KYIV, Ukraine — Two Ukrainian military officers peer at a laptop computer operated by a Ukrainian technician using software provided by the American technology company Palantir. On the screen are detailed digital maps of the battlefield at Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, overlaid with other targeting intelligence — most of it obtained from commercial satellites.

As we lean closer, we see can jagged trenches on the Bakhmut front, where Russian and Ukrainian forces are separated by a few hundred yards in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. A click of the computer mouse displays thermal images of Russian and Ukrainian artillery fire; another click shows a Russian tank marked with a “Z,” seen through a picket fence, an image uploaded by a Ukrainian spy on the ground.

If this were a working combat operations center, rather than a demonstration for a visiting journalist, the Ukrainian officers could use a targeting program to select a missile, artillery piece or armed drone to attack the Russian positions displayed on the screen. Then drones could confirm the strike, and a damage assessment would be fed back into the system.

This is the “wizard war” in the Ukraine conflict — a secret digital campaign that has never been reported before in detail — and it’s a big reason David is beating Goliath here. The Ukrainians are fusing their courageous fighting spirit with the most advanced intelligence and battle-management software ever seen in combat.

“Tenacity, will and harnessing the latest technology give the Ukrainians a decisive advantage,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me last week. “We are witnessing the ways wars will be fought, and won, for years to come.”

I think Milley is right about the transformational effect of technology on the Ukraine battlefield. And for me, here’s the bottom line: With these systems aiding brave Ukrainian troops, the Russians probably cannot win this war.

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“The power of advanced algorithmic warfare systems is now so great that it equates to having tactical nuclear weapons against an adversary with only conventional ones,” explains Alex Karp, chief executive of Palantir, in an email message. “The general public tends to underestimate this. Our adversaries no longer do.”

“For us, it’s a matter of survival,” argues “Stepan,” the senior Ukrainian officer in the Kyiv demonstration, who before the war designed software for a retail company. Now, he tells me bluntly, “Our goal is to maximize target acquisitions.” To protect his identity, he stripped his unit insignia and other markings from his camouflage uniform before he demonstrated the technology. (The names he and his colleague used were not their real ones; I agreed to their request of anonymity to protect their security.)

“Lesya,” the other officer, was also a computer specialist in peacetime. As she looks at the imagery of the Russian invaders, on a day when their drones are savaging civilian targets in Odessa on Ukraine’s southern coast, she mutters a wish for revenge — and a hope that Ukraine will emerge from the war as a tech power. Although the Ukrainians now depend on technology help from the United States, she says, “by the end of the war, we will be selling software to Palantir.”

A new deterrent

Kyiv was cold and snowy when I arrived just over a week ago. The power was out in some places. But the capital was relatively calm. There was a traffic jam entering the city on Friday. On Saturday night, restaurants were so packed it was impossible to get a reservation at one upscale spot.

As Ukraine moves toward the new year, the spirit of resistance and resilience is visible everywhere. Roadblocks have mostly disappeared. Children play near captured Russian tanks in St. Michael’s Square. Couples take walks in the park above the Dnieper River.

I visited here at year’s end to explore what I believe is the overriding lesson of this fight — and indeed, of the past several decades of war: A motivated partner like Ukraine can win if provided with the West’s unique technology. The Afghanistan army cracked in a day because it lacked the motivation to fight. But Ukraine — and, before it, the Syrian Kurdish fighters who crushed the Islamic State with U.S. help — has succeeded because it has both the weapons and the will.

I met with a senior team from Palantir that was visiting its Kyiv office. With the approval of Karp, the CEO, they agreed to show me some of the company’s technology close to the firing line. The result is a detailed look at what may prove to be a revolution in warfare — in which a software platform allows U.S. allies to use the ubiquitous, unstoppable sensors that surround every potential battlefield to create a truly lethal “kill chain.”

Palantir, which began its corporate life working with the CIA on counterterrorism tools, has many critics. That’s partly because its biggest funder, from the start, has been co-founder Peter Thiel, a successful tech investor who has also been a strong supporter of Donald Trump and other MAGA Republicans. Karp, by contrast, has supported many Democratic candidates and causes.

The critics have argued that Palantir’s powerful software has been misused by government agencies to violate privacy or serve questionable ends. For example, The Post wrote in 2019 that Palantir’s software was used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help track undocumented immigrants, which led to protests from some of the company’s employees. Tech community activists have asked whether Palantir is too close to the U.S. government and can “see too much” with its tools.

Karp responded to criticism of the company in an email to me last week: “Silicon Valley screaming at us for over a decade did not make the world any less dangerous. We built software products that made America and its allies stronger — and we are proud of that.”

And Ukraine has shifted the political landscape in Silicon Valley. For Karp and many other technology CEOs, this is “the good war” that has led many companies to use their tools aggressively. This public-private partnership is one of the keys to Ukraine’s success. But it obscures many important questions: How dependent should countries be on entrepreneurs whose policy views could change? We can applaud the use of these tools in “good” wars, but what about bad ones? And what about private tools being turned against the governments that helped create them?

We’ll be struggling with these questions about technology and warfare for the rest of this century. But after spending weeks investigating the new tools developed by Palantir and other companies, the immediate takeaway for me is about deterrence — and not just in Ukraine. Given this revolution in technology, adversaries face a much tougher challenge in attacking, say, Taiwan than they might imagine. The message for China in this emerging digital battle space is: Think twice.

Vast data battlefield

The “kill chain” that I saw demonstrated in Kyiv is replicated on a vast scale by Ukraine’s NATO partners from a command post outside the country. The system is built around the same software platform developed by Palantir that I saw in Kyiv, which can allow the United States and its allies to share information from diverse sources — ranging from commercial satellite imagery to the West’s most secret intelligence tools.

This is algorithmic warfare, as Karp says. Using a digital model of the battlefield, commanders can penetrate the notorious “fog of war.” By applying artificial intelligence to analyze sensor data, NATO advisers outside Ukraine can quickly answer the essential questions of combat: Where are allied forces? Where is the enemy? Which weapons will be most effective against enemy positions? They can then deliver precise enemy location information to Ukrainian commanders in the field. And after action, they can assess whether their intelligence was accurate and update the system.

Data powers this new engine of war — and the system is constantly updating. With each kinetic strike, the battle damage assessments are fed back into the digital network to strengthen the predictive models. It’s not an automated battlefield, and it still has layers and stovepipes. The system I saw in Kyiv uses a limited array of sensors and AI tools, some developed by Ukraine, partly because of classification limits. The bigger, outside system can process highly classified data securely, with cyber protections and restricted access, then feed enemy location data to Ukraine for action.

To envision how this works in practice, think about Ukraine’s recent success recapturing Kherson, on the Black Sea coast. The Ukrainians had precise intelligence about where the Russian were moving and the ability to strike with accurate long-range fire. This was possible because they had intelligence about the enemy’s location, processed by NATO from outside the country and then sent to commanders on the ground. Armed with that information, the Ukrainians could take the offensive — moving, communicating and adjusting quickly to Russian defensive maneuvers and counterattacks.

And when Ukrainian forces hit Russian command nodes or supply depots, it’s a near certainty that they have received enemy location data this way. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, told me that this electronic kill chain was “especially useful during the liberation of Kherson, Izium, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions.”

What makes this system truly revolutionary is that it aggregates data from commercial vendors. Using a Palantir tool called MetaConstellation, Ukraine and its allies can see what commercial data is currently available about a given battle space. The available data includes a surprisingly wide array, from traditional optical pictures to synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds, to thermal images that can detect artillery or missile fire.

To check out the range of available data, just visit the internet. Companies selling optical and synthetic aperture radar imagery include Maxar, Airbus, ICEYE and Capella. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sells simple thermal imaging meant to detect fires but that can also register artillery explosions.

In our Kherson example, Palantir assesses that roughly 40 commercial satellites will pass over the area in a 24-hour period. Palantir normally uses fewer than a dozen commercial satellite vendors, but it can expand that range to draw imagery from a total of 306 commercial satellites that can focus to 3.3 meters. Soldiers in battle can use handheld tablets to request more coverage if they need it. According to a British official, Western military and intelligence services work closely with Ukrainians on the ground to facilitate this sharing of information.

A final essential link in this system is the mesh of broadband connectivity provided from overhead by Starlink’s array of roughly 2,500 satellites in low-earth orbit. The system, owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, allows Ukrainian soldiers who want to upload intelligence or download targeting information to do so quickly.

In this wizard war, Ukraine has the upper hand. The Russians have tried to create their own electronic battlefield tools, too, but with little success. They have sought to use commercial satellite data, for example, and streaming videos from inexpensive Chinese drones. But they have had difficulty coordinating and sharing this data among units. And they lack the ability to connect with the Starlink array.

“The Russian army is not flexible,” Lesya, the Ukrainian officer, told me. She noted proudly that every Ukrainian battalion travels with its own software developer. Ukraine’s core advantage isn’t just the army’s will to fight but also its technical prowess.

Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, listed some of the military tech systems that Ukraine has created on its own in a response to my written questions. These include a secure chat system, called “eVorog,” that has allowed civilians to provide 453,000 reports since the war started, a 200-strong “Army of Drones” purchased from commercial vendors for use in air reconnaissance, and a battlefield mapping system called Delta that “contains the actual data in real time, so the military can plan their actions accordingly.”

The “X factor” in this war, if you will, is this Ukrainian high-tech edge and the ability of its forces to adapt rapidly. “This is the most technologically advanced war in human history,” argues Fedorov. “It’s quite different from everything that has been seen before.”

And that’s the central fact of the extraordinary drama the world has been watching since Russia invaded so recklessly in February. This is a triumph of man and machine, together.

Next: How “algorithmic warfare” evolved over the past decade — and some very human worries.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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