Europe and Russia

Russia in the Gray Zone

July 19, 2019  • Kathleen Hicks

Kathleen Hicks is Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director of the International Security Program at CSIS. 

In its ongoing efforts to influence world affairs, Russia is waging campaigns both bloodless and bloody. A significant number of its tactics fall in the space between routine statecraft and direct and open warfare, a space sometimes referred to as the gray zone. Americans are familiar with Russia’s disinformation efforts in the United States and its use of “little green men” in Ukraine, but they may be less attuned to stepped-up Russian political and economic coercion abroad, its gray zone cyber and space operations, and its use of proxy forces in Syria. Its aim with these approaches is to achieve Russian objectives at low-cost, notably by side-stepping military escalation with the United States or its NATO allies. Although Russia’s exploitation of the gray zone is not new, the prevalence of these tactics is more significant today than any time since the end of the Cold War.

Disinformation, political influence, and economic and energy coercion are the core of the Gerasimov Doctrine’s emphasis on the non-military means to achieve security goals. Russia continues to remain undeterred and committed to interfering and influencing foreign elections. US officials have acknowledged Russian attempts to influence the 2018 midterm elections and identified efforts already underway to influence the 2020 election. The European Commission recently released a report which found that Russia undertook a “continued and sustained” disinformation campaign that targeted Europe’s recent parliamentary elections. Its efforts were aimed at both suppressing voter turnout as well as influencing voter preference.

Russia is also using intrusive diplomacy, influence buying, and economic threats to bring international conditions in line with its interests. The Kremlin continues to cultivate and deepen ties with Serbia, pulling Belgrade further from seeking European Union membership and into Russia’s orbit. Though they ultimately failed, Russia actively worked to undermine an agreement between Greece and then Macedonia, which seemingly has paved the way for the latter to join NATO in 2020. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, with controlling interest from Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, is designed to circumvent Ukraine. If completed as planned, it will allow Russia to shut off gas to Ukraine while allowing it to flow to others in Europe, creating leverage for pitting Europe against Ukraine in Russia’s favor.

Russia’s gray zone efforts are also visible in the military sphere, below the level of direct warfare with the United States. Over strenuous US objections, Russia recently sold Turkey a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, the S-400. Aside from further testing Turkey’s place in the NATO alliance, there is fear that the Russian engineers will gain access to American-made equipment in Turkey’s existing or future arsenal. In space, Russia conducts operations against US commercial and allied military satellites, and in cyberspace, Russia’s Main Intelligence Administration, or GRU, has been active not only in election interference but in probing the US power grid. Russian and Chinese cyber infiltration of US naval assets and systems is also well documented. In the Western Hemisphere, in spite of dire economic and humanitarian conditions, Russia persuaded Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro from stepping down and provided support to the Maduro regime in the form of military advisers. Presenting perhaps the greatest risk for military escalation beyond the gray zone is Russian use of disguised forces. In Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic, for instance, Russia has deployed a paramilitary mercenary organization, the Wagner Group. Last year, US military forces successfully struck Wagner Group positions in Syria.

The Russians may be the most audacious gray zone actor, but they have plenty of company in the space. China, North Korea, and Iran are also engaged in many of the tactics described above. Moreover, the United States and others in the free world themselves employ covert means to achieve their goals albeit, in well-functioning democracies, such tactics are governed under a set of domestic laws that ensure oversight, accountability, and overall alignment within transparent foreign policy aims. This approach continues to advantage the United States in gray zone competition, despite the temptation to beat authoritarians at their own game. The United States’ greatest strategic advantages for achieving its interests in the face of gray zone threats are in fact tied to strengthening its model of governance, not abandoning it. Foremost among those advantages from which the United States should campaign are these four:

  • the power of US Constitutional tenants and individual liberty;
  • a reservoir of vibrant business, media, and civil society communities;
  • unparalleled alliance and partner networks; and
  • significant potential U.S. government capacity and capability.

Campaigning from its relative strengths is critical, but the United States must also lessen its vulnerabilities to Russian and others’ tactics. This includes improving its intelligence warning to capture a broader set of indicators and better recognize rivals’ campaigns from ambiguous patterns. Warning is useless, however, if it does not galvanize effective action. The United States must, therefore, adopt a campaign mindset, looking to proactively shape conditions in its favor—building from its strengths, not primarily from its fear—and respond effectively when vulnerabilities are exploited. This requires improvements in US government policies, authorities, and capabilities, but it also demands the government act as a trusted and reliable long-term partner of the private sector and allies and partners, both of which are frequent targets for Russia and others. Gaining that trust will take compelling and transparent communications and revitalized tools of suasion, including economic statecraft and domestic incentives for businesses and civil society.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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