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The new front of great power conflict: Russian gray-zone aggression

To effectively respond to this threat, the U.S. needs an entirely new set of operational concepts. They will have to emphasize operating below the threshold of war.

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Spencer Berning
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has been in flux. The Cold War military was organized to counter and defeat the large-scale army of another great power, the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR, the military began the search for another great power rival. This of course all changed with the attacks on 9/11, and the military oriented itself to counterterrorism operations. This change was not wholly successful, and for the past 17 years the military has been trying to fight against insurgents with a conventionally built army.

Now, with the return of threats from a re-emergent Russia, the U.S. military will have to reorient itself back to countering another great power. Unfortunately, the blueprint for this is not clear. The great power threats from the Cold War are not the same threats as today. The most acute threat emanates from Russian gray-zone aggression. While an ambiguous concept, gray-zone aggression is hostile action that falls below the threshold of war, including the use of armed forces with ambiguous ties to nation-states. It was the usage of disguised Russian soldiers, referred to as “little green men,” that played a key role in Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea in 2014. These unmarked forces occupied key parts of Crimea and facilitated the Russian annexation of the peninsula.

A feckless response

Easily one of the most successful usages of gray-zone tactics since the end of the Cold War, this blatant act of territorial conquest was a true fait accompli. The initial response from the U.S. and her allies was utterly feckless. While the following international response demonstrated that the West was able to impose effective diplomatic and economic costs subsequently, the fact remains that the Russians exposed a key gap in our operational concepts to respond to crises in the moment. We know how we will respond to a blatant act of conventional warfare, but we do not know how to respond to a hybrid-tactic approach that still nets the spoils of war.

To effectively respond to this threat, the U.S. needs an entirely new set of operational concepts. They will have to emphasize operating below the threshold of war. The first step must be clearly identifying what the implementation of gray-zone tactics looks like. This is no easy task, as such actions are purposefully deceitful, and we can hardly expect our adversaries not to update their methods. Identification of initial actions by groups that have a plausibly deniable connection to a state yet are still undertaking actions that serve that state’s interests will be the key first step.

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Secondly, we must craft responses to gray-zone aggression. The trick will obviously be responses that are proportional and limited in nature. In the best-case scenario, the threat of these responses deters the usage of gray-zone tactics. If they cannot deter these tactics, they must be able to counter them while keeping any conflict from enlarging. One option could be the use of non-military security forces in vulnerable countries that can counter aggression, but whose use would not count as a technical use of military force against an adversary.

Tactics bypass U.S. advantage in conventional war

We must ultimately reduce the benefits of engaging in gray-zone aggression tactics for lesser great powers. The U.S. maintains an advantage in fighting a conventional war, and preserving this capability deters potential adversaries from engaging in a highly destructive large-scale war. Gray-zone tactics are such a threat to our national security because they not only bypass our advantage in conventional warfare, but also strengthen our near-peer competitors’ ability to fight a conventional war. Russia now has unquestioned control of the key strategic port of Sevastopol, and its recent seizure of Ukrainian naval ships in the Kerch Strait demonstrates all too well that the Russians have control over the area. This control would be a key advantage in the event of a war with NATO.

If we fail to construct new methods to deal with a revanchist Russia, the stakes could be even higher. What happens when the Russians employ these tactics in a NATO country, such as the former Soviet states in the Baltics? Do we allow the Russians to pick off a NATO member, shattering one of the bedrock institutions of our national security? Do we respond disproportionately, and trigger a large-scale war with Russia, possibly a nuclear one? Both scenarios are unacceptable, so we must endeavor to craft responses that seriously increase the costs of gray-zone aggression without expanding into general war.

Spencer Berning is an undergraduate major in political science at the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota.


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