Contradictions of “Gray Zone” Conflict

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Lada Kochtcheeva – PhD, School of Public and International Affairs, NCSU, Raleigh, NC, USA

With the advance of globalization, the spread of new technologies and communication, diffusion of power to non-state actors, as well as the emergence of new forms of rivalry and statecraft, the concept of “gray zone” conflict has very recently produced substantial debates in the US and internationally. Most analysts do not view this phenomenon as entirely new, but they distinguish certain characteristics of gray zone and argue that it will progressively depict and challenge the international system in the near future[1]. The gray zone form of conflict is usually defined by the presence of several crucial elements including rising revisionist states that seek to alter some aspect of the existing, status quo international order, incremental or gradual strategy often ambiguous, and unconventional tools, which are short of outright war[2]. Actors using a gray zone method strive to achieve their goals while minimizing the scope and scale of actual fighting[3]. Russia’s actions in Eastern Europe are often described by the theorists of gray zone conflict as using multi-instrument strategies while employing direct action. China’s use of incremental approaches to produce a critical basis for its claims in the South China Sea also represents a prominent example of the gray zone conflict.

While strategies such as support for proxies, informational campaigns and propaganda, political warfare, economic pressure and others have been used for centuries, it is claimed that the gray zone conflicts today are different because more and more states appear to be willing and able to extensively use these strategies. Additionally, the cost of major military aggression has become so high, and socio-economic interdependence so pervasive, that states with some degree of unorthodox intent arguably could be searching for alternative avenues to achieve their goals. Also, while some gray zone instruments may be considered traditional, other tools, such as cyber-attacks and sophisticated information campaigns, are comparatively new and add another degree of intensity to these operations and another level of difficulty to discerning and evaluating such campaigns. Finally, gray zone conflict symbolizes an intentional and distinguishable strategy for some states, and a phenomenon of increasing significance internationally.

Nonetheless, what distinguishes the gray zone conflict from such concepts as hybrid, non-linear, and unconventional warfare? Under the concept of gray zone, most major world powers share collective interests and enjoy the benefits from many features of a well-established international rules-based order. States benefit from the international trade, environmental and other accords and they are exposed to such common threats as terrorism, global climate change, piracy, etc. The existence of common interests, however, does not always suggest that all major states are content with the existing world order. The assumption behind gray zone activities is that some states, usually the rising powers, become unsatisfied with the current arrangements, forms of global or regional influence, distribution of goods and services, and structure of rules and norms, and engage in undertakings to change the established order to benefit only their own interests and values[4]. Status quo states (for example US and UK) are presumed to support the rule-based order, but revisionist states powers (Russia and China said to be revisionist powers) demand and expect the transformation of certain features of the system. This division of states into revisionist and status quo state presupposes an international order, which is defined in very specific terms.

According to the gray zone conflict theorists, true status quo powers are powerful defenders of the existing international order, who are largely satisfied with their identity and role in that system. Some usual status-quo states, while satisfied with their power and standing in the world, may have “targeted” revisionist moments to change certain elements of the system due to their rationalistic belief or moral commitment to do so. “Measured” revisionists (Russia, China) aim to preserve their power by supporting many features and institutions of the world order, but are discontent with their status and thus seeking to modify it to improve their own standing.

Gray zone conflicts are usually incremental, gradual campaigns intended to progress over time rather than to gain immediate results. The thinkers of the gray zone approach claim that measured, unconventional, and ambiguous activities of gray zone give the states that use them a perceived opportunity to achieve their objectives[5]. Because such indirect, protracted, asymmetric approaches are not well understood, they carry the long-term threat of undermining the effectiveness of guarantees and policies aimed at deterrence or reassurance. The third major component of gray zone conflict involves the employment of an integrated set of untraditional national and subnational tools in an ambiguous campaign to gain specified strategic objectives without crossing the brink of overt conflict.

Obviously, many countries employ gray zone strategies, why then so much attention is given to Russia? The probable answer is the following one. Besides the usual treatment of Russia as an adversary, it is believed that Russia’s actions represent something more than classic great power politics. This in part indicates the lack of understanding of Russia’s policy within the Western expert community.

[1] Cleveland, Charles T. 2016. Lieutenant General. Keynote Address. Russian Engagement in Gray Zone—Symposium. Washington, D.C. October 19, 2016

Hoffman, Frank. 2016. The Contemporary Spectrum of Conflict: The Protracted, Gray Zone, Ambiguous and Hybrid Modes of War. Available at: http://index.heritage.org/military/2016/essays/contemporary-spectrum-of-conflict/

Leed, Maren. 2015. Square Pegs, Round Holes and Gray Zone Conflict: Time to Step Back. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. 16(2): 133-43

[2] Mazaar, Michael J. 2015. Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict. Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press

Brand, Hall. 2016. Paradoxes of the Gray Zone. Presentation at the Russian Engagement in the Gray Zone—Symposium. Washington, D.C. October 19, 2016

[3] Votel, Joseph L. 2015. Commander, USSOCOM. March, 18, 2015

[4] Mazaar, Michael J. 2015. Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict. Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press

[5] Mazaar, Michael J. 2015. Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict. Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press

Hoffman, Frank. 2016. The Contemporary Spectrum of Conflict: The Protracted, Gray Zone, Ambiguous and Hybrid Modes of War. Available at: http://index.heritage.org/military/2016/essays/contemporary-spectrum-of-conflict/

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