Skip to content

Illustration by Patric Sandri

Russia’s Geopolitical Campaign: Hybrid Warfare in the Gray Zone

Russia is pursuing a grand geopolitical strategy, with three ambitious goals that go far beyond mere election hacking, according to a recent Pentagon white paper.

Russia’s first goal is to reestablish influence over former Soviet countries, the report finds. Its second goal is to reclaim its global status as a great power. And its third goal is to take on the role of a key regional power broker, which would allow it to increase its military and political sway over nations around the world and influence the current liberalist rules governing world order.

Certainly, these are audacious goals. But just as significant as the goals themselves are the means for achieving them, some experts say.

“Overall, Russia’s influence abroad is growing, and the Kremlin has mastered the use of ‘hybrid warfare’ in driving Russia’s foreign policy,” states the white paper, Russian Strategic Intentions, one of several reports compiled as part of the recent U.S. Strategic Multilayer Assessment, The Future of Global Competition and Conflict.

Russia's hybrid warfare tactics are sometimes called gray zone tactics because they are deployed in middling conflicts that cannot be considered conventional black-and-white forms of open warfare or routine statecraft.

The hybrid tactics often combine instruments of state power with both military and nonmilitary means to achieve different aims, such as influence, deterrence, or intimidation. These tactics can include interference in political processes; economic and energy exploitation; media manipulation; or the use of proxies, such as paramilitary forces.

And the tactics vary by region. In Eastern Europe and the Baltics, Russia’s primary interests “are to maintain, or regain, its sphere of influence,” according to Jeremy W. Lamoreaux, an expert at Brigham Young University–Idaho who is among the white paper contributors.

One of the ways Russia is pursuing this aim in the Baltics is by exploiting the discontent simmering within the already large and growing community of ethno-linguistic Russians who live in the Baltic countries, and then using that community as a kind of fifth column. “This population extensively consumes much Russian media. The Kremlin, knowing this, intentionally feeds these consumers pro-Russian, and anti-Western, content,” Lamoreaux writes.“Additionally, anti-Russian legislation within the Baltic states simply serves to heighten the discord.”

By heightening this discontent, “Russia effectively divides society, weakens civil society, and undermines the potential... of a functioning democracy,” Lamoreaux says. In the long-term, “…societal divisions could become so dilapidating that Russia simply has to exaggerate and enhance differences (effectively done through social media) and then watch the West tear itself apart,” he adds.

In Africa, Russia is using different hybrid tactics. “Moscow seeks a powerbroker role and to sideline Western influence,” writes Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in the report. In Libya and the Central African Republic, for example, Moscow reportedly donated weapons and trainers to bolster the governments’ fight against opposition groups.

“Moscow’s weapons donations in particular highlight how the Kremlin uses activities to bolster its own leverage in a conflict situation and sideline Western actors,” Borshchevskaya writes. “Indeed, creating a dependence on the Kremlin and managing conflicts, rather than focusing on genuine conflict resolution, is likely Putin’s ultimate goal.”

Moreover, since 2014 Russia has signed 19 military cooperation deals in sub-Saharan Africa, including ones with Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. Moscow is also involved in a variety of natural resource projects throughout the continent. Russia’s state-run energy agency is working in Zambia and Rwanda on nuclear power, while Russian energy firms are developing oil and gas fields in Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon, among others, according to the report.

Other hybrid tactics deployed in the gray zone include intrusive diplomacy and the use of disguised forces, according to Russia in the Gray Zone, another recent report issued in July 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

In Europe, for example, Russia continues to strengthen ties with Serbia to pull Belgrade further into Moscow’s orbit and deter it from seeking European Union membership, writes Kathleen Hicks, senior vice president and director of the CSIS International Security Program, in the Gray Zone report. Russia also recently actively worked to undermine an agreement between Greece and Macedonia, using disinformation campaign tactics via hundreds of Russian-backed websites and Facebook posts. (That effort failed, and it may have paved the way for Macedonia to join NATO in 2020.)

And “perhaps the greatest risk for military escalation beyond the gray zone is Russian use of disguised forces,” Hicks writes. In Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic, Russia has deployed a paramilitary mercenary organization, the Wagner Group. Many analysts have said that Wagner is really a disguised Russian military unit deployed in conflicts where deniability is needed. Last year, U.S. military forces successfully struck Wagner Group positions, rather than Syrian soldiers, during fighting in Syria.

For U.S. security, these hybrid warfare tactics are challenging, because the U.S. government is not yet ready to compete in gray zones, says John Schaus, another expert with the CSIS International Security Program.

“It [the United States] has the capability to be a formidable and effective gray zone actor but does not yet have a plan to employ or integrate its capabilities to achieve its objectives,” Schaus writes in a second CSIS report, Competing in the Gray Zone.

According to Shaus, the U.S. government has stated its intent to take seriously the challenges in the gray zone. But “more work is needed to move beyond a clear understanding of the problem into specific actions, operational frameworks, and strategic approaches,” he writes.

One of the challenges that the U.S. faces here is that Russia’s form of government gives it significant flexibility and an advantage over the United States when it comes to gray zone activities, Jason Werchan, strategy program manager at the U.S. European Command, writes in the white paper.

“The U.S. needs a whole-of-government approach to counter Russian activities in the area,” Werchan writes.

Overall, U.S. security faces a future where gray zone tactics will become more common, not less, writes Richard Weitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute: “We enter a new era of international politics which is defined by shades of gray.”