Learning the Dark Arts of the ‘Grey Zone’

Is the West getting played by the likes of Russia and China?

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Russia began its military invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 but, with the war dragging on for a year and a half with no end in sight, some security experts are calling on the West to wise up.

“Desperate to prevail, Russia has dangled the threat of nuclear retaliation against any western-supported escalation,” writes Michael Miklaucic this week in the Financial Times. A senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington, he suggests the West should not be so easily duped. Rather, it urgently needs to brush up on its own “grey zone” techniques – otherwise known as the dark art of subversion. 

“In these circumstances, one might ask if the grey zone remains a valid concept?” Miklaucic notes. “Are cyber attacks, disinformation and influence campaigns still relevant? The answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’”

With Ukraine representing one of many battlegrounds in a wider struggle over the new world order, the West needs to get sorted on “what is and is not permissible in international relations,” he argues, because both military and non-military strategies will continue to be deployed by Russia, China and other nations to challenge the West. 

Among recent grey-zone assaults: Russia’s online interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election; cyberattacks on Ukraine, as well as malware attacks globally by the Sandworm hacker group, run by Russia’s military intelligence service; and China’s use of technology, naval power and trade embargoes to strong-arm its opponents. 

In addition, Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns have repeatedly blamed the war in Ukraine on the infringement of the West, which has not been persuasive among Ukraine’s allies, but has been successful elsewhere. (Fun fact: ‘misinformation’ is when facts are wrong, but ‘disinformation’ when they are knowingly or deliberately wrong.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been one of the chief progenitors of such purported disinformation by leading the West to believe he might just consider tapping his nuclear arsenal. While a fallacy, says geopolitical and information warfare analyst Irina Tsukerman, it is a useful one, as it has worked in his favor in holding infinite leverage over the West.

“Putin is not interested in nuclear war, not even close,” she tells Power Corridor. “He wants to stay in power, live long and stay healthy. This is someone who values life. Look at the extreme measures he went to to keep from getting Covid. He enjoys his life, has a great time, has many lovers and palaces and yachts and a fortune. He’s 70 years old and he’s got young children. This is a man who plans to live to a ripe old age. He’s not going to be dropping any nuclear weapons. The West has done a terrible job of reading Putin’s motives.”

With the West shying away from offering direct military intervention in Ukraine, sticking to training, weapons and intelligence, Ukraine may prevent a major Russian victory, Miklaucic says, but it likely will stay mired in a “frozen conflict with Russia in indefinite possession of over 15 percent of Ukrainian territory. That would amount to a victory for Russia.”  

If the West is to retain or regain its upper hand in the world order, it must foster its own grey-zone toolbox, grounded in what Miklaucic terms “the non-military elements of strategic power.” One example: The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant branded Putin a war criminal, which not only left him publicly ostracized, but forced him to curtail recent travel plans and undermined his Russia-Africa summit. The West’s ability to further sideline Putin, he says, will reside with these grey-zone techniques.

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of The Daily Upside, its editors, or any affiliated entities. Any information provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice. Readers are encouraged to seek independent advice or conduct their own research to form their own opinions.