The notion that Russia exploits a space between peace and war called the ‘grey zone’ to wage war using unconventional means ignores the reality of contemporary Russian aggression, and breeds passivity in Western responses.
What is the myth?
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the idea of Russia exploiting a ‘grey zone’ in warfare caught hold among policymakers and practitioners, swiftly followed by academics. A RAND Corporation study claimed Russia used ‘disguised special operations units, disinformation tactics, and local proxy forces’ to seize the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. For other analysts, deniability and ambiguity were the defining characteristics of grey-zone conflicts.
Former Pentagon adviser and professor of international law Rosa Brooks wrote that in the grey zone, ‘we don’t know what counts as “armed conflict” or “the use of force”… we’re no longer even sure what counts as a weapon’. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work characterized grey-zone activities as the use of ‘agents, paramilitaries, deception, infiltration, and persistent denial to make those avenues of approach very hard to detect’.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The rapid spread of grey-zone warfare as a concept led to institutional change and the development of a dedicated research industry. Among many examples, the US Army financed a research programme at the RAND Corporation for ‘competing in the gray zone’ and ‘gaming gray zone tactics’. Similarly, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US created a ‘gray zone project’ to investigate ‘the toolkit for coercion below the level of direct warfare [including] information operations, political coercion, economic coercion, cyber operations, proxy support, and provocation by state-controlled forces’.
But even when adopting grey-zone terminology, many practitioners recognized that it described aspects of warfare that were already familiar. Former commander of US Special Operations Command Joseph Votel is considered one of the first senior military figures to describe the grey zone. Speaking at NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in September 2015, Votel noted that his presentation had initially been drafted with references to ‘hybrid warfare’, which had been replaced with ‘grey zone’ at the last minute to reflect the fashion of the day.
Why is it wrong?
The field of Russian military studies has been saturated with definitional debates since 2014. This chapter does not join that conversation but instead focuses on the practical impact of misunderstanding Russian concepts of operations. It argues that the Western notion of Russian grey-zone warfare misconstrues key elements of both ambiguity and legality.
Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, ambiguity was seen to be at the core of Russian warfare. But there was rarely genuine doubt as to Russia’s actions. While the soldiers entering Crimea in 2014 wore unmarked uniforms, they were not impossible to identify. Instead, the ploy exploited the unwillingness of Western leaders to identify them because that would mean they needed to act.
Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was similarly not ambiguous. Although it relied on a mix of hack and leak operations, and flooding social media with information operations, there was a high degree of awareness among US intelligence agencies and by President Barack Obama as to what was happening. Indeed, Obama warned Vladimir Putin in a face-to-face meeting in September 2016 that Russia should ‘cut it out’ regarding election interference.
Notably, this warning was given weeks before Russian military intelligence leaked the emails from the Democratic National Committee, which became the most obvious example of election interference. US intelligence agencies have consistently shown a striking degree of insight and visibility into Russian operations.
Yet again, the problem with Russian election interference had little to do with ambiguity, but rather a lack of determination to stop the Russian leadership from taking action that was known to be imminent. This was a classical deterrence problem, where the US exhortation to ‘cut it out’ lacked a credible ‘or else’ which could have changed the Russian calculus.
The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is an example par excellence of how Russian warfare exploits a lack of determination rather than ambiguity. As early as 4 December 2021, the New York Times published reports from US intelligence stating Russia was going to build up a force of 175,000 troops for a possible invasion – and yet, despite awareness-raising campaigns by the US and the UK, European leaders preferred to believe until the last minute there would be no invasion.
Grey-zone warfare is seen to take place in a notional area ‘between war and peace’. But it is clear this is really nothing new if the definition of ‘war’ is considered according to the core tenets of international law. To start with, the UN Charter – the main source of international law – has only one mention of war, and it is in the preamble, not the operative paragraphs. Instead, the UN Charter prohibits the use of force or threat thereof against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state. The examples of Russian grey-zone warfare cited above are clear transgressions of this.
The idea of a space between war and peace also presupposes that a declared state of war is a relevant phenomenon from a legal point of view. The last time the US formally declared war was during the Second World War – so in effect, all US conflicts since then have been in a grey zone between war and peace. And the last time Moscow declared war was in the Soviet–Japanese war in 1945, also within the context of the Second World War.
The central Article 51 states that ‘nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence’. This is notable as the inherent right to self-defence, by definition, predates the UN Charter and is defined by customary international law, which was never meant to render a defender defenceless just because the attacker’s choice of weapons is not specified in the UN Charter.
A 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on nuclear weapons stressed that all provisions of the UN charter apply to ‘any use of force, regardless of the weapons employed’. This shifts the focus from the type of weapons to their effects, which provides a foundation to argue about their legality. In this vein, the Tallinn Manual published by NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence deems that cyberattacks can amount to what is seen as an ‘armed attack’ and therefore trigger the invocation of NATO’s Article 5.
War is a political decision more than a legal definition, and the fact that decision-makers use the language of the grey zone in a sense reflects their own unwillingness to call something ‘war’. This of course does not mean that every kind of aggression should be termed war; it simply means that it is up to the decision-maker to call it such if they believe that to be the case and if it is useful to do so. Ukraine initially named the conflict in eastern Ukraine an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ because this was the main legal framework available for conducting operations without declaring war against Russia.
What is its impact on policy?
If we believe that the primary utility in Russian grey-zone warfare comes from its ambiguity or its ability to exploit legal difficulties, international responses will tend to focus on processes and tools for attribution, as well as on updating international and national law. However, if – as this chapter argues – there is good insight into much of what is happening, but determination is lacking, the problem is a different one.
The key problem with the notion of Russia’s grey-zone warfare is that it absolves the international community of the need to act. The concept declares that Russia has managed to find a way to attack the West in places where it is unable to defend itself. This notion breeds passivity rather than the proactivity needed to confront the challenge.
What would good policy look like?
The key requirement in countering supposed Russian grey-zone warfare is resolve rather than stronger attribution or better laws. The hardest part of politics is finding the political will to do something, and political leaderships have a limited set of priorities, which are seldom focused on security and defence.
Even during the current phase of the war in Ukraine, the bulk of Russia’s ability to influence and threaten the West still derives from non-military means. The invasion could – and should – be a gamechanger in terms of potential actions to deny the Russian leadership the ability to operate its ‘grey-zone warfare’ with relative impunity. In their responses, Western states have restricted the Russian leadership’s ability to operate in the financial, information and intelligence spaces, but confronting Russian forms of warfare short of open military conflict still requires tough choices. Countering Russian energy dominance in Europe is not primarily an analytical problem, but a political one.
Most importantly, states need to rediscover a working theory on how to deter Russia today. Calls for deterrence have been termed provocative, but are in essence a defensive ambition. Deterrence is concerned with making an adversary abstain from an action, and that includes communicating a credible cost to that adversary. This is what was lacking in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, US election interference in 2016, and the Ukraine invasion of 2022.
Successfully dealing with Russian warfare requires recognizing the aggression, and then building the political will to counter it rather than to obfuscate it. Intelligence disclosures describing specific Russian plans in advance of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 indicate a recognition of this need by the US and the UK.
Russia’s intentions and plans have long been clear. What has been lacking, however, is the will to act on the available knowledge. If there is not sufficient political will, it is Moscow’s adversaries themselves who create a grey zone in which Russia can operate – a space where everybody knows what Russia is doing but nobody is willing to take action to stop it.
Publication date: 14 July 2022