Small Wars Journal

The Danger of the Gray Zone: Flawed Responses to Emerging Unconventional Threats

Share this Post

The Danger of the Gray Zone: Flawed Responses to Emerging Unconventional Threats

Nicholas M. Hermberg

In the South China Sea, islands able to sustain PLA military operations have been constructed from what previously had been strips of sand or small atolls while Chinese naval militias harass commercial fishing fleets. In Crimea and eastern Ukraine, soldiers lacking national attribution have assisted local forces demanding changes in political boundaries. Russian and Chinese actions have demonstrated a shift in their strategies to project power within their perceived spheres of influence. Less overt than conventional military forces, and more aggressive and assertive than ordinary diplomatic relations, these changed tactics represent a declared “gray zone” between war and peace. The actions of the Chinese and Russian governments convey comprehensive strategic thought, connecting the desired national goals to means able to accomplish these objectives while realizing the realities of the modern international system.

A reactive focus on countering these gray zone tactics fails to appreciate that to adversaries such as Russia and China, the gray zone does not occupy a unique battlefield space, but rather that these actions throughout the conflict spectrum are coordinated efforts to achieve national goals despite the current military and economic advantages of the United States. The United States must counter the gray zone by rejecting frameworks which distinguish between military and diplomatic responses, between conflict and peace, and instead counter these threats with a coherent, national, whole of government strategy that recognizes U.S. goals for the international system and the wide variety of means available towards preserving, maintaining, and expanding national interests. The United States should avoid over-militarizing its response and should embrace alternative means for exercising power and influence on battlefields that no longer distinguish between diplomatic and military victories.

The most important characteristics of the gray zone, as described by Michael Mazarr for the Army War College, are the tactics employed and the intent of the actor engaging in them. The gray zone incorporates the use of unconventional force, “from cyberattacks to information campaigns to energy diplomacy,” in order to gain leverage over other international actors.[i] These actions are carried out by “revisionist” states seeking to exercise control without escalating conflicts to a level which would merit American or international intervention despite the campaign’s objective being intolerable from the perspective of the international community. Importantly, the actions are “forceful and deliberate” efforts to achieve political and strategic goals that utilize gradual escalation rather than outright military conflict.[ii] These actions, as recognized by Antulio Echevarria II, purposefully remain below the threshold for a military response such Article 5 of the NATO treaty or by the UN Security Council and exploit “the West’s conception of, and long-standing aversion to, armed conflict” while accomplishing “’wartime-like’ objectives.”[iii]

Scholars have debated the usefulness of the gray zone conception described by Mazarr. Adam Elkus points to the vagueness of the definition of the “gray zone” itself while criticizing those who claim that this tactical shift by actors such as Russia and China represents a new method of warfare or statecraft.[iv] He questions the usefulness of a concept which embraces the tactics of both Putin’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine with China’s efforts to exert control over the South China Sea while also connecting them to wars being conducted by groups in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria against their governments as well as other rival factions.[v] Additionally, according to Elkus, the concept is flawed due to its inability to distinguish these “new” tactics from previous wars of limited ends and means, noting that political and strategic implications have long impacted the willingness to engage in what Clausewitz describes as “absolute war.”[vi] While Mazarr recognizes that Elkus is correct in identifying that the concept is vague and that the idea of limited war is nothing new, he maintains that the gray zone remains an identifiable effort by adversaries to work between the spaces occupied by traditional diplomatic and military methods of pursuing national interests.[vii]

It is this conceived seam between diplomatic and military methods which is the danger of Mazarr’s gray zone conception of conflict, a mistake noted by Elkus as well as Frank G. Hoffman.[viii] While Mazarr undoubtedly recognizes the nuanced blending of traditional and non-traditional tactics, policy-makers focused on this break between war and peace will be misled. This implied gap between diplomacy and military force fails to recognize that adversaries such as China and Russia do not distinguish between the two in their conception of strategy and pursuit of objectives within the international system. Elkus writes that this gap is a “Western invention” that is unrecognized by the states who Mazarr is arguing are pursuing gray zone conflicts in the first place.[ix] Hoffman notes that the United States suffers from a “strategic culture” that fails to recognize the “many different forms that human conflict can take.”[x]

According to Hoffman, this short coming has three consequences for the United States: the United States has unreasonable political and public expectations for success, a simplistic grasp for the effectiveness of the application of military power, and a “naïve” view of both its adversaries and the overall context for international conflict.[xi] Mazarr is correct to recognize that actors such as Russia or China are deliberately conducting campaign-like efforts to achieve their interests, but assigns a framework for analyzing these threats which continues to separate between peaceful and violent forms of conflict rather than recognizing that these actors are instead willingly employing means, both sequentially and simultaneously, throughout the spectrum of coercion. Rather than distinguishing between military and diplomatic methods, or seeking to exploit a gap between the two, actors such as Russia and China are successfully harnessing all aspects of national power in their conception of strategy, with great effect.

Russia’s approach to modern conflict has evolved from the conceptions of conventional, declared wars. Instead, as described by chief of the general staff of the Russian Federation Valery Gerasimov, conflict now combines military and nonmilitary activities and is dominated by small, focused forces and influenced heavily by “political, economic, cultural and other nonmilitary factors.”[xii] According to Gerasimov’s conception of modern war, conflict is dominated by “intelligence and domination of the information space” with little distinguishing the levels of war or offensive and defensive actions.[xiii] According to the Gerasimov model, military and nonmilitary means are intertwined as the conflict moves from its covert origins and escalation phases that prepare the battlespace towards the crisis, resolution, and restoration of peace phases.[xiv] Diplomacy, economic and political coercion, intelligence and covert action, and military force are all utilized as tools to systematically achieve Russia’s national interests. While Mazarr’s identification of a clear and coherent campaign is clearly incorporated into the Gerasimov model, the gap between military and diplomacy is absent.

Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine provide a clear example of the Gerasimov model and the Russian approach to conflict outside of conventional military forces. Russia had a number of motivations to intervene in Ukraine following the Euromaidan protests and the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ranging from appeasing Russian domestic turmoil, limiting and obstructing NATO and EU expansion, geostrategic control of the Black Sea, strengthening and protecting its sphere of influence in eastern Europe, and incorporating ethnic Russians and former Soviet compatriots into the Russian Federation.[xv] In both cases Russia prepared the modern battlefield through exertion of political and economic pressure on its neighbor Ukraine, culminating in the abandonment of EU integration by President Yanukovych in December of 2013.[xvi] President Putin offered $15 billion in loans and discounts on Russian natural gas in an effort to appease protests and push Ukraine towards joining the Eurasian Economic Union.[xvii] These efforts failed, as violent protests resumed in Ukraine culminating in Yanukovych fleeing to Russia after an agreement signed on February 21st, 2014 agreed to presidential elections and a return to Ukraine’s 2004 constitution aimed at limiting executive authorities.[xviii]

During this preparation and escalation period, Russia had already begun an information campaign that utilized propaganda aimed against the protestors in Kiev who were labeled as fascist in an effort to preemptively delegitimize the resistance movement.[xix] In both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia supported and assisted the rise in political protests and energized groups opposed to Kiev’s pro-Western, anti-Yanukovych turn.[xx] On March 16th, Crimea held a referendum in which an improbable 97% of the population allegedly voted to secede from Ukraine and Vladimir Putin absorbed the region into the Russian Federation on March 18th despite international protests.[xxi] On the 19th, Russia assisted Crimean troops in securing Ukrainian military forces within Crimea, leading to their withdrawal.[xxii] Russia solidified its control over Crimea through the provision of economic aid while simultaneously escalating efforts in eastern Ukraine, pulling attention away from the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea.[xxiii] In the Donbass region of Ukraine, Russia assisted militant separatist forces replaced Ukrainian television broadcasts with Russian content, utilized SPETSNAZ forces to combat the Ukrainian military, and cut off Ukraine’s access to Russian natural gas exports in efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine and weaken Kiev’s resolve to combat the secessionist movements.[xxiv] In August, 2014, Russian forces including personnel carriers, artillery, and air defenses were obviously involved in insurgent efforts to overthrow Kiev’s limited control of the region despite persistent denials from Moscow.[xxv] It is clear that throughout the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Russia has effectively utilized economic, political, and military tools in both covert and overt ways to pursue its interests. The gray zone, rather than a distinct zone between diplomacy and military force, was in fact the effective employment of all methods available in a coherent national strategy applied towards achieving specific objectives within Ukraine.

Likewise, the Chinese approach to strategy avoids the limitations of separating conflict between diplomatic and military stages. In 1999, Qiao Lian and Wang Xiangsui published “Unrestricted Warfare,” prescribing an effective strategy for countering American military and economic prowess and advancing Chinese national interests. In it, they articulated eight principles to guide developing nations such as China in their pursuit of national interests in an era of American dominance: omnidirecitonality, synchrony, limited objectives, unlimited measures, asymmetry, minimal consumption, multidimensional coordination, and adjustment and control of the entire process. Several are particularly relevant in understanding Chinese conceptions of the proposed gray zone. Omnidirectionality refers specifically to the rejection of separate military and diplomatic spheres for conflict and interaction between states.  The authors state that “there is no longer any distinction between what is or is not the battlefield.”[xxvi] The battlefield now incorporates, and must be fought within, “social spaces such as the military, politics, economics, culture, and the psyche” of the adversary population.[xxvii] Synchrony implies that rather than thinking in phases, national actions to accomplish goals are conducted “under conditions of simultaneous occurrence, simultaneous action, and simultaneous completion.”[xxviii] The pursuit of limited objectives with unlimited means ensures that national ambition is constrained by what is feasible, but that all resources are available to achieve these interests while asymmetry ensures that means are employed against the weakest points of an adversary rather than directly against its strengths, such as conventional American military forces.[xxix]

These principals can be observed by Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The Chinese have asserted their territorial rights to the South China Sea, claiming historical control and therefore legitimate sovereignty over the sea and its island formations including the Pratas, Paracel, Macclesfield, and Spratly Islands also claimed by China’s regional neighbors.[xxx] China has attempted to legitimize these claims under treaties such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) despite many legal objections to this interpretation of international law and the implications it would have for historical territory claims.[xxxi] While The Hague ruled that these historical claims were not sufficient to claim sovereignty over the sea, and therefore benefit from rights such as the establishment of an exclusive economic zone, on July 12th, 2016, the Chinese continue to assert influence in this non-kinetic conflict through several means while rejecting the court’s ruling.[xxxii]

While the Philippines filed their case with the UN against the Chinese in 2013, objecting to Chinese control of the Scarborough Shoal within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, the Chinese have continued their ambitious construction and militarization of several disputed islands within the South China Sea.[xxxiii] Since the creation of seven islands on pre-existing reefs was completed in 2015, China has built ports, airstrips, and radar facilities within the disputed Spratly Islands.[xxxiv] China has refused to respect other nations’ exclusive economic zones within the South China Sea, failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from exploiting these territories.[xxxv] The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the growing Chinese Maritime Militia have been involved in a number of interactions with American and neighboring navies, challenging freedom of navigation and assisting in economic exploitation of claimed territories.[xxxvi] China’s ambiguous Maritime Militia have assisted, and at times replaced to maintain the legitimacy of the PLAN, Chinese efforts to protect economic interests and enforce territorial claims and has become increasingly militarized.[xxxvii] This force has allowed China, through top-down political direction, to “harass foreign fishermen and defy other coast guards without obviously implicating the Chinese state.”[xxxviii] While China has failed to change international recognition of its territorial claims through legal processes, it has continued to exert coercive force through economic exploitation of the areas, political rejection of UN rulings, and the use of the PLAN and Maritime Militia to exert overt and covert Chinese state pressure on competing regional and international actors.

Both the Russian and Chinese strategies for changing territorial claims in the Ukraine and South China Sea conflicts represent a connection of all assets of state power and a refusal to operate solely in diplomatic or military capacities. This is a clear rejection of Mazarr’s characterization of the gray zone, demonstrating a connection between strategic thought that refuses to delineate between the means available towards achieving national interests. Diplomacy, economic pressure, covert action, and military force are all parts of eroding the existing international system and achieving otherwise objectionable goals without incurring an intervention by the United States or other interested actors. Rather than a unique space between peace and violence, between diplomacy and military force, the gray zone should be characterized as a refusal by adversarial countries to delineate between separate phases of a conflict, instead achieving a calculated attempt to harness all methods of coercive power to achieve contested national interests. Through this lens, it becomes clear that the United States and other nations seeking to preserve the existing international order must likewise respond with a holistic, strategically-sound policy to counter gray zone aggression by actors such as Russia and China.

Unfortunately, the United States continues to fail in producing a coordinated response to gray zone challenges. The term first appeared in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review[xxxix] in regards to security assistance capacities.[xl] The report recognized that the gray zone requires competent foreign partners when the United States is unable to confront aggression independently. The report additionally noted that the “divide between defense, diplomacy, and development…simply does not exist,” and that the Department of Defense would require other American civilian agencies to adequately respond to the gray zone threat.[xli] By June, 2016, the United States Government had failed to achieve this coordinated response to the gray zone, with the Army War College publishing “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone” and calling for the Department of Defense to lead in the development of a national strategy to combat “gray zone competitors.”[xlii] While recognizing that a whole of government strategic approach would be “ideal,” it dismissed this possibility due to a lack of “national-level guidance.”[xliii] The report is likely right in this respect, supported by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016. Section 1097 has called on the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lead the U.S. Government development of a strategy to counter unconventional warfare, encompassing many of the gray zone methods employed by Russia and China.[xliv]

Despite the initial recognition that the entirety of the United States Government would be necessary to confront gray zone challenges, the Army War College and the House of Representatives have demonstrated that the Department of Defense will be the first, and potentially only, agency tasked with formulating a coherent strategy to respond to non-conventional aggression. This is despite the threat that falls in the United States military’s least effective role in accordance with its own planning models. As noted by Echevarria II, gray zone conflicts occur during Phase 0 (Shape) and Phase 1 (Deter) of the campaign-planning paradigm.[xlv] These are the phases in which the military traditionally places the least effort, equipping and training for traditional military missions which occur in Phase II (Seize Initiative) and Phase III (Dominate).[xlvi] The United States is tasking an organization, predisposed to prioritize other areas of conflict and with no authority over other agencies, to lead the development of a strategy to combat gray zone conflicts that are best characterized by the rejection of traditional definitions between military and non-military roles. In addition, the military is being asked to construct a strategy to combat actions by actors who are inherently seeking to avoid escalating conflicts to a level which would activate sufficient political and popular support to warrant a military intervention.

The United States has failed to appropriately respond to the gray zone so far, so what should the new administration strive for? Strategists should recognize the legitimacy of the revisionist nature of Mazarr’s characterization of the gray zone, while rejecting the notion that these actors are operating between war and peace. Instead, they should note that Russian and Chinese coercive action is effectively utilizing the entire conflict spectrum in their efforts to pursue national interests, carefully weighing their objectives with the means available to achieve them while avoiding an outside military intervention. Short of developing a whole of government strategy to equally coalesce all of the United States’ available means to combat these actions, which to this point has and will likely continue to remain elusive, other government agencies can embrace the gray zone and develop its own means to combat gray zone aggression. These responses will avoid the over-militarization of the American response to Chinese and Russian actions, having already recognized the inherent flaws in tasking the Department of Defense to lead this pursuit.

The United States should continue to look for ways to increase the power and severity of economic sanctions, recognizing their coercive strengths and weaknesses, and maintaining international support for their sustainment despite legitimate fears of negative economic repercussions for initiators. Sanctions against Russia, in combination with the decreased price of oil, have contributed to a Russian recession since their annexation of Crimea.[xlvii] Unfortunately, this has not forced Putin to end Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, and seven EU states have reported a net loss in trade since sanctions began.[xlviii] Current and future efforts to deter Russian aggression will depend on developing tools to effectively punish Putin, potentially requiring the ability to threaten his regime.[xlix] In response to The Hague decision delegitimizing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States could bolster the international court’s decision by finally ratifying UNCLOS as proposed by Senator Ben Cardin and supported by Mazarr.[l] This would grant greater legitimacy of the court, and its future decisions, and limit China’s ability to ignore UN decisions it disagrees with.

Overall, the United States should seek policies such as those which strengthen international institutions and support the Western-dominant system that Russia and China are seeking to circumscribe. The United States should seek to exercise the “strategic restraint” G. John Ikenberry credits with America’s prolonged dominance in the international arena, strengthening institutions which have allowed to enduring American prosperity and the stability of Western industrial democracies.[li] This would raise the costs of attempting to operate outside of the existing international system and strengthen the resolve of anti-revisionist states to oppose gray zone aggression. A failure to recognize the true nature of the gray zone, and to develop non-military means if not a collective strategy to combat it, will enable actors such as Russia and China to manipulate the current aversion to armed intervention and expand their national interests.

End Notes

[i] Michael J. Mazarr, “Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict,” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press (December, 2015), pg. 2., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[ii] Ibid, pg. 1, 11-13.

[iii] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Operating in the Gray Zone: An Alternative Paradigm for U.S. Military Strategy,” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. War College Press (April, 2016), pg. 12-13., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[iv] Adam Elkus, “50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense,” War on the Rocks (December 15th, 2015)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Michael J. Mazarr, “Struggle in the Gray Zone and World Order,” War on the Rocks (December 22nd, 2015)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[viii] Adam Elkus, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: You Cannot Save the Gray Zone Concept,” War on the Rocks (December 30th, 2015)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Frank G. Hoffman, “The Contemporary Spectrum of Conflict: Protracted, Gray Zone, Ambiguous, and Hybrid Modes of War,” The Heritage Foundation, 2016 Index of US Military Strength (2015) pg. 25., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xi] Ibid, pg. 25.

[xii] “’Little Green Men’: Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014,” United States Army Special Operations Command (June, 2015), pg. 17., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xiii] Ibid, pg. 18.

[xiv] Ibid, pg. 19.

[xv] Ibid, pg. 36-40.

[xvi] Ibid, pg. 53.

[xvii] Ibid, pg. 53.

[xviii] Ibid, pg. 54.

[xix] Ibid, pg. 54.

[xx] Ibid, pg. 56, 58.

[xxi] Ibid, pg. 57.

[xxii] Ibid, pg. 58.

[xxiii] Ibid, pg. 58.

[xxiv] Ibid, pg. 58-60.

[xxv] Ibid, pg. 61.

[xxvi] Qiao Lian and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House (Beijing; February, 1999), pg. 206., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxvii] Ibid, pg. 206.

[xxviii] Ibid, pg. 207-208.

[xxix] Ibid, pg. 208-211.

[xxx] Dustin E. Wallace, “An Analysis of Chinese Maritime Claims in the South China Sea,” Naval Law Review (63:128, July 1st, 2013), pg. 148-149., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxxi] Ibid, pg. 148-153.

[xxxii] “The South China Sea Arbitration,” Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague (July 12th, 2016)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxxiii] “Courting Trouble: An international tribunal delivers a blow to China’s claims in the South China Sea,” The Economist (July 16th, 2016)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxxiv] Derek Watkins, “What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea,” The New York Times (February 29th, 2016)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxxv] “The South China Sea Arbitration”

[xxxvi] Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy, “China’s Maritime Militia,” Center for Naval Analysis (March 7th, 2016), pg. 3., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xxxvii] Ibid, pg. 4-6.

[xxxviii] Michael McDevitt, “Becoming a Great ‘Maritime Power’: A Chinese Dream,” Center for Naval Analysis (June, 2016), pg. 6.

[xxxix] Hoffman, “The Contemporary Spectrum of Conflict,” pg. 26.

[xl] Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review Report” (February, 2010), pg. 73., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xli] Ibid, pg. 74.

[xlii] Nathan Freier et. al., “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone,” Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press (June, 2016), pg. 78., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xliii] Ibid, pg. 78.

[xliv] U.S. Congress, “H.R. 1735: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Section 1097,” (January 6th, 2015)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xlv] Echevarria II, “Operating in the Gray Zone,” pg. 13.

[xlvi] Ibid, pg. 15.

[xlvii] Edward Hunter Christie, “Sanctions after Crimea: Have they worked?” NATO Review (2015)., accessed December 1st, 2016.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] See Nikolay Marinov, “Do Economic Sanctions Destabilize Country Leaders?” American Journal of Political Science (49:3, July 2005), pg. 564-576 for a thorough discussion of the effectiveness of sanctions and their ability to threaten regime stability.

[l] Ben Cardin, “The South China Sea is the Reason the United States Must Ratify UNCLOS,” Foreign Policy (July 13th, 2016)., accessed December 1st, 2016. Mazarr, “Struggle in the Gray Zone and World Order.”

[li] G. John Ikenberry, “Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order,” International Security (23:3, Winter 1998-1999), pg. 73.


About the Author(s)

Nicholas Hermberg is currently earning a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University as a VGEP scholar. In 2016, he graduated from the United States Naval Academy and commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy with orders to report to flight school following the completion of his graduate studies. These views are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the United States Navy.