Russia is spent. Foreign investors and some of the country’s best minds have fled, the economy is hobbled by sanctions, and its military is bogged down in Ukraine, with many of its elite soldiers dead and best equipment destroyed. The revolt of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group in June 2023 seemed a final humiliation, revealing a once-feared dictator reduced to bargaining with individual commanders. This weakness is real: if Russian president Vladimir Putin could turn back the clock, it is hard to imagine he would again choose to invade Ukraine.
Russia’s massive losses will probably make Putin cautious about conventional military operations in the foreseeable future. Even if Putin were tempted, the United States has increased the number of its ground forces in Europe to their highest level in nearly two decades, and NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrence is robust. Nor would the Russian people and elite be eager to support an invasion of a NATO country and risk escalation to nuclear war.
Yet Putin shows no sign of leaving power. He continues to harbor revisionist aims and expresses admiration for Russian conquerors like Peter the Great. Russia still seeks influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As long as Putin is in power, he will undermine any future Ukrainian government and attempt to deter and punish Western countries that support Kyiv. The expansion of NATO to include Finland and eventually Sweden, the military build-up of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and continuing military aid to Ukraine are particular affronts to Putin, even though they are justified as necessary responses to Russian aggression. Putin sees the United States, which he refers to as the “main enemy” (or glavny vrag), engaged in both hard and soft power actions to encircle and overthrow his regime.
There is a way for Russia to square this circle of maximal ambitions and weak conventional capabilities: gray zone warfare, which we define as covert operations, disinformation, subversion, sabotage, cyber-attacks, and other methods that advance a state’s security objectives but fall short of conventional warfare. Russia has numerous skilled intelligence officers, paramilitary forces, elite hackers, and other personnel who enable it to excel in this arena. Moreover, Russia’s track record in gray zone warfare is impressive, in contrast to its poor performance on the battlefield.
Russia’s future gray zone warfare will likely take many forms. European countries could suffer clandestine attacks against oil and gas pipelines and underwater fiber-optic cables. Border states like Poland, Finland, and Estonia could face a flood of illegal immigrants massing on their borders. Central Asian and African leaders who stand up to Moscow might find local insurgents awash in Russian weapons and trained by Russian special operations forces. Local critics of Moscow might suddenly suffer a series of suspicious accidents, including poisonings. Cyber attacks might take down financial systems and other critical infrastructure. Disinformation on social media platforms might be used to divide the West, while propaganda explains away Russian misdeeds, with artificial intelligence (AI) being used for even more creative mischief.
Despite Russia’s impressive gray zone capabilities, however, it has significant weaknesses. Moscow’s gray zone efforts are often uncoordinated, and the country’s technical talent is limited compared with that of the United States and Europe. Its private military companies, like Wagner, may face many additional restrictions as Putin questions their loyalty.
Bolstering U.S. and allied cyber and border defenses, sharing intelligence, and providing training and advice to local militaries can reduce the danger of gray zone warfare. But the West does not only have to play defense. Russia is also vulnerable to gray zone tactics by the United States and its European allies in Belarus, the Middle East, Africa, and even Russia itself.
Russia’s Gray Zone Toolbox
Russia’s gray zone warfare draws on a long and robust history. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union excelled at conducting covert intelligence operations and subverting its enemies, tarnishing global views of the United States and at times creating opportunities for near-bloodless communist takeovers of governments. KGB active measures included creating front organizations, backing friendly political movements, covertly funding political parties, provoking domestic unrest, and churning out forgeries and other types of disinformation.
These operations continued after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia’s support for separatists in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria; assassinations of dissidents; cyber and information campaigns in the Baltic states; and use of private military companies in Africa and the Middle East to project its influence all are experiences on which Russia will build as it pursues an aggressive foreign policy while seeking to avoid all-out war. Such organizations as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Foreign Security Service (FSB), and Spetsnaz have a robust history of gray zone warfare.
Gray zone warfare also fits Moscow’s worldview. Russian security elites, not just Putin, see the world as full of secret threats and have an operational culture that considers the best defense as a good offense. As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper contends, Russians “are almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever.”
Consequently, Russia poses a multifaceted threat through its use of covert action, cyber operations, disinformation, and political subversion. These components of gray zone warfare are not mutually exclusive. Moscow frequently uses a combination of them to weaken its adversaries and expand its influence.
Moscow has long conducted covert action to deter or punish defectors and opposition leaders, subvert U.S. and NATO policies, and expand Russian influence. During the Cold War, the KGB assassinated several foreign leaders, such as Afghan president Hafizullah Amin, in pursuit of Russian foreign policy interests. The KGB’s 13th Department was particularly notorious for targeted assassinations abroad, including the killing of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940.
Moscow targets political opponents abroad for two major reasons. The first is to exact revenge on Russian spies, diplomats, soldiers, and even journalists and academics who flee the country, criticize the Kremlin, and aid Moscow’s enemies. A second goal is to deter future betrayals and send an unambiguous message that defectors will be hunted down. In March 2006, Russian agents poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who defected to the United Kingdom, at a London hotel. In March 2018, Russian agents poisoned Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer that defected to the UK, who Putin called a “scumbag” and a “traitor to the motherland.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine triggered an exodus of technocrats, soldiers, spies, oligarchs, and journalists who fled to the West, disenchanted with Putin’s authoritarianism and strategic blunders. Those who cooperate with Western governments or publicly speak out against the Kremlin could become targets of Russian intimidation and even assassination.
Russian security agencies have also conducted paramilitary activity abroad to further Russian foreign policy interests and undermine its adversaries, including the United States. Perhaps the quintessential example was in Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin effectively used masked special operations forces, or “little green men,” to seize Crimea from Ukraine without firing a shot. Russia also conducted sabotage operations in Europe, including planting bombs at two weapons depots in 2014 in the Czech Republic that were allegedly storing arms headed to the Syrian opposition, which Moscow opposed. In March 2023, Polish authorities uncovered a GRU operation to bomb rail lines that transported weapons and other aid to Ukraine. Russian actors with ties to Russian intelligence also plotted to organize protests in Moldova in 2023 as a pretext for mounting an insurrection against the Moldovan government, which Moscow viewed as too pro-Western.
U.S. and European critical infrastructure are potential targets of paramilitary activity. One example is the underwater fiber-optic cables that connect Europe with North America and link European countries with each other. There are currently sixteen cables running under the Atlantic that link the United States with mainland Europe, which are critical for global communication and account for roughly 95 percent of all transatlantic data traffic. Russia has already signaled that it could target these cables with special operations forces, intelligence units, and submarines. In January 2022, the Russian Navy allegedly mapped out the undersea cables off the coast of Ireland and carried out maneuvers, raising serious concerns in Europe and the United States about Russian sabotage.
Other potential Russian gray zone activities include weaponizing immigrants and targeting Europe’s intricate network of gas and oil pipelines, which serve as the lifeblood of European energy. Migration, especially from Africa and Muslim countries, is an emotional issue in Europe. In 2021, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko threatened to “flood” the European Union with “drugs and migrants.” His government then sent thousands of migrants from Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, and Afghanistan to the borders of Latvia, Lithuania, and especially Poland. In August 2023, leaders from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia warned that they were seeing growing tensions on their borders with Belarus and threatened to seal their borders if Lukashenko weaponized immigration. The Italian government claimed in 2023 that the Wagner Group was behind a surge in migrants from Libya, where Wagner is active.