Russian internet trolls interfering in the 2016 US election; Russian hitmen murdering Putin’s opponents abroad; Chinese spies manipulating Australian politics while the country’s coast guard ships harass Japanese fishing fleets. These are not random acts of autocratic aggression. They are examples of a new form of warfare that is becoming a bigger challenge for the United States and its western allies: gray-zone conflict.
Once an obscure Russian military concept, the gray zone is now one of the hottest topics in Western strategic debate. As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins explains: “Gray zone conflict is best understood as activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.” Gray-zone tactics are ambiguous and incremental, including the use of information operations (a term of art for fake news), psychological manipulation, corruption, economic coercion, and covert paramilitary activities, like the “little green men” Russia sent in to invade Crimea.
There is plenty of academic debate over the exact nature of this term, but little disagreement that the United States, and the West generally, is on the losing side in an increasingly bitter competition with a belligerent Russia, as well as a subtler but equally determined China. From Ukraine to the South China Sea, these two nations’ bold gambles appear to have paid off. Eastern Ukraine remains in chaos and Crimea firmly in Russian hands, while China’s Navy intimidates its neighbors, ignoring international legal rulings. Now, other revisionist powers like Iran are learning to emulate their tactics: use deniable proxy forces, drone strikes, and cyber-attacks to improve their position without risking all-out war.
Despite the early success these rogue nations have had through adopting gray-zone strategies, defeatism in the face of this challenge is foolish; with skill and focus, the United States can win this conflict.
After all, this is not the first time the U.S. has faced a shrewd enemy that had overcome its conventional military inferiority with innovative tactics. During America’s greatest conflict, the Civil War, the Confederacy had won a series of stunning victories with bold, unorthodox maneuvers, frustrating Northern generals and leaders alike and leading to a sense that the North could not win the war. So, when Ulysses S. Grant took over the demoralized Army of the Potomac, after yet another defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee, he told his officers:“I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do… try to think what are we are going to do ourselves.” That is the spirit the West needs to rediscover to win in the gray zone.
Helpfully, Russia and China have been quite clear about their approach. In 2013, General Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, gave a speech that set out what became known as the Gerasimov doctrine, although he portrayed—quite ironically—that these were in fact Western tactics aimed against Russia.
He described the future of conflict as “shifting towards the widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures implemented with the use of the protest potential of the population. All this is complemented by covert military measures, including the implementation of information warfare and the actions of special operations forces.”
The Chinese approach to the gray zone—referred to as the doctrine of Three Warfares—concentrates on the psychological media and legal tools needed to win without fighting. As Professor Stefan Harper explains, “It is uniquely suited to an age where success is often determined by whose story rather than whose army wins.”
In other words, both countries rely on the ability to shape the specific populations’ information environments through manipulation, corruption, and targeted violence, effectively winning by demoralizing their opponents.
These unconventional methods, from fake news to little green men, aim to destabilize a target without provoking an armed confrontation, which authoritarian regimes know they would lose. This is a serious challenge to democratic stability: Russia has already invaded and occupied parts of a sovereign neighbor, supported extremist parties in Europe, and interfered in U.S. elections. China, for its part, has been refining and exporting surveillance technologies, bullying companies and governments who dare to challenge it, as the NBA has recently learned, and expanding its reach by building illegal artificial islands across the South China Sea.
But democracies often undermine authoritarian rule often without even realizing it—merely by offering an attractive alternative to a system built on oppression and lies. Despotic rulers tend to see this threat as part of a conspiracy against them, or at least, they want their people to see it as such.
The Chinese Communist Party’s complaint that the rise of androgynous celebrities is the result of a CIA conspiracy is one of the more absurd examples. Putin’s claim that the Internet is a CIA plot is another, as was his furious reaction to the Panama Papers, which exposed the fortunes his cronies had hidden away. Meanwhile, the example of nearby democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan challenge the entire legitimacy of authoritarian rule.
While there are areas in which democracies and autocracies can collaborate, the tension is inherent between incompatible systems. For the democracies, building good defenses against gray-zone tactics is a necessary starting point. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Denmark, for instance, have launched successful media literacy programs to help their citizens recognize Russian media manipulation and call out fake news. As a result, they are largely immune to this tactic.
But stronger defenses are not enough. Following General Grant’s example, democracies also need to increase the pressure on authoritarian regimes and go on the offense against the gray zone. Some interventions are direct, like the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Asia’s Uighur language radio, which provides an independent news source to China’s oppressed Uighur minority. Others are subtler. Standing up for the human rights of dissidents and oppressed minorities—from Tibet and Hong Kong to the brave protesters in Moscow—is not only a moral duty but also good policy. If nothing else, it undermines the authoritarian regimes in power. This requires U.S. presidential leadership squarely anchored in democratic values, from a president who believes in them. We may have to wait until 2021 for that—though let’s hope not until 2025.
Beyond a direct response to gray-zone attacks, there are a series of policies, which Western democracies should be following in any case, that have the added benefit of increasing pressure on authoritarian regimes. Russian government accounts show that 60 percent of its GDP comes from oil and gas resources. Rapid de-carbonization, particularly in Europe, threatens the economic basis of Putin’s rule. Therefore, moving away from dependence on Russian gas and toward a carbon-free energy system should be a priority for all European countries—and one that the US should support.
Similarly, China’s aggressive moves to develop, and export, a model of technologically enabled authoritarian control—and its use of economic leverage to squash dissent—is a central element of the Communist Party’s approach to exerting power. It needs to be challenged. The European Union’s work to defend online privacy is a helpful start.
China uses its increasing economic might as leverage. When the Norwegian-based Nobel committee awarded the 2010 Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobao, China retaliated by imposing an economic embargo for six years until Norway promised not to interfere in Chinese affairs again. The lack of support from Norway’s allies was shameful and only encouraged more of this kind of behavior. Any future administration must recognize how understanding the tools of weaponized economic interdependence—and how to use them—has to be a core capability of the United States.
A great weakness of modern autocracies is their reliance on the support of corrupt oligarchs, who steal at home and then hide much of their wealth in the West. Laws that promote financial transparency can put pressure on them while reducing their ability to corrupt Western accomplices. Some interesting recent examples include the U.S .Corporate Transparency Act, legislation that would ban shell companies; the EU’s efforts to eliminate money laundering sanctuaries; and the UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order that allows a court to investigate and freeze the assets of a suspected foreign criminal, or someone politically connected to them. These reforms all build on the success of the Magnitsky Act, which remains to date the most powerful financial tool against murderous Russian kleptocrats. Finally, there is still a military component to gray-zone conflict. The United States and European allies will need to provide fledgling, vulnerable democratic partners with defensive military assets to deter and, if needed, defeat subversion, sabotage, and armed confrontation. The West, however, should be careful not to reduce this challenge to just its military dimension.
General Grant would have understood that the position of democracies in this conflict is considerable. With clarity and determination, they can move from a purely reactive approach and make autocrats worry more about maintaining their hold on power than on how they can sow chaos abroad. If they do, they will make the world a safer, and more decent, place.