Russia’s Gray Zone Threat after Ukraine

Russia’s Gray Zone Threat after Ukraine

Moscow may be economically weak, and its conventional military is a far cry from the feared Red Army of the Cold War. But Russia is far from down and out.

Such efforts might not sway people to Russia’s position. However, they are likely to sow discord and decrease confidence in government in general. All information, even the truth, would be suspect.

Political Subversion

In the Soviet days, Moscow aggressively subverted unfriendly governments, and these efforts helped it install Communist regimes in several Eastern European states at the end of World War II. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union infiltrated trade union movements in Africa, encouraged radical nationalist parties, and otherwise tried to shape the politics of countries it sought to influence.

Although Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and disinformation related to the Brexit vote that year correctly gathered considerable attention, Russia has also subsequently interfered in elections throughout Europe. In 2017, Russia pushed conspiracy theories and other radical ideas into the Czech Republic, played up migrant crime in the March 2018 Italian election, and used fake news, social media trolls, and other means to target Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France. In Sweden, Russia spread disinformation about a joint military exercise with NATO. Russian disinformation also heated up during large-scale protests, such as pro-independence ones in Catalonia in 2017 and “yellow vest” demonstrations in France in 2018-2019. Russian propaganda regularly questioned the legitimacy of the European Union, blaming it for problems with migrants, and used disinformation to try to depress turnout in the May 2019 EU elections. Indeed, data from the University of Toronto suggests that almost every European country was targeted in one way or another. 

At times, Russia supports political parties that share its interests. Some of these are anti-establishment parties, like the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, the latter of which also received a loan from a Russian bank. In Greece, Russia backed both far-left and far-right parties, as both were Euro-skeptical. A 2020 study by the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy found at least sixty cases of Moscow supporting political campaigns outside Russia, although the evidence on some cases is weaker than others. As of August 24, 2023, the figure was 199 cases of interference overall, with techniques including “malign finance,” information operations, and civil society disruption.

Russia also seeks to create, and then exploit, economic dependencies. Russia uses its extensive energy sector to create links to its oil and natural sectors with leaders in other countries, giving them a personal and financial interest in having a country with a strong relationship with Russia. Moscow also has developed close relationships with smuggler networks in neighboring states.

Instigating protests is another way of shaping perceptions and increasing support for Russia in preparation for more aggressive measures. In Ukraine, Russia originally sought to use its agitators to create extreme right-wing anti-Russian protests, infiltrating them with paid criminals and agent provocateurs who would then attack the police. Russia would then use these protests as proof of a “far-right coup” to justify its invasion. Indeed, Russia intended to defeat Ukraine quickly in 2022 in part by fomenting instability and chaos in Ukraine itself and, in so doing, undermining trust in government, tarnishing Ukraine as an ally for potential partners, and promoting pro-Russian voices in the country.

Russia sees such subversive operations in part as a tit-for-tat response to Western pressure. Moscow viewed the various color revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine as fomented by the West, and it also blames the United States and the West for anti-government street protests in Moscow, such as those that occurred in 2011 and 2012. U.S. efforts to promote democracy and build the rule of law are viewed as transparent attempts to undermine Moscow and its allies.

Russian Weaknesses

Gray zone warfare is a necessity for Russia in part due to its weaknesses. Russia’s military is a shell of the Red Army that posed a serious threat to Western Europe during the Cold War. Its economy is stagnant, even without the impact of Western sanctions, and is roughly the size of Canada. The threat from Russia is not a return to the Cold War when two superpowers wrestled over control of the world. Instead, Russia is a weak challenger trying to play a bad hand to its advantage.

Although numerous Russian actors are involved in gray zone activities, they are generally uncoordinated. These actors include military intelligence, domestic and foreign intelligence services, state-owned enterprises, official media, private military companies, self-proclaimed patriotic groups in Russia including biker gangs, various oligarchs, co-opted hackers, the Russian Orthodox Church, and many others. This broad set of actors allows more opportunism and creativity, but it makes unity of effort harder. Many of Russia’s front groups and local allies are also of limited loyalty, especially in a crisis. In Ukraine, Wagner Group contractors and the Russian military clashed over high casualty rates and a shortage of ammunition. Even some structures created by Russian intelligence in Ukraine, such as organizations composed of retired KGB special forces, stayed loyal to Ukraine when the invasion occurred.

Although Russian cyber attacks can be disruptive, Moscow’s capabilities are limited if countries can build a strong defense. Ukraine successfully blunted Russia’s cyber attacks during its 2022 invasion, thanks to help from the United States, the United Kingdom, and private companies such as Microsoft. Russia is at best middling in its AI capabilities and comparable to Canada, rather than to the United States or China. The exodus of much of Russia’s tech talent following the 2022 invasion and subsequent conscription only worsens Moscow’s problems.

Russia itself is also vulnerable to gray zone activity. Views of Russia across the globe are highly negative, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center poll that covered twenty-four countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A median of 82 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of Russia, and 87 percent had little or no confidence in Vladimir Putin. These sentiments create opportunities for subverting Russian diplomatic, military, and other actions.

The same is true of Russian private military companies, which are active in Africa, the Middle East, and even Latin America. Prigozhin was instrumental in expanding Russia’s influence by using his Wagner Group to train foreign forces, conduct military operations, extract resources, and help coup-proof local regimes. But Prigozhin’s death in August 2023, almost certainly at Putin’s instruction, is likely to undermine the morale, leadership, and effectiveness of some Russian private military companies. Social media channels linked to Wagner blamed Putin and other Russian officials for orchestrating Prigozhin’s death and threatened retaliatory action against Moscow. Leaders in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and other countries may opt to break ties with Wagner and consider alternatives to improve security.

Recommendations

Training and aid packages must focus not only on stopping Russian conventional aggression but also on fighting gray zone warfare. Russia’s efforts are most successful when a country has weak border controls, poor counterintelligence, internal divisions, is awash in firearms, and is unprepared for Russian machinations, according to a RAND study. All these conditions can be countered or at least reduced.

The specifics will vary by country and area. Efforts to combat corruption, improve border security, fight low-level insurgencies, and encourage political reform are vital for reducing Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. In Europe, assistance should focus on intelligence coordination, cyber defense, and border control measures. Europe must prepare for a surge of migrants facilitated by Russia, especially in such frontline states as Finland, Poland, the Baltics, and Romania. Finland is building a three-meter-high fence made of steel mesh and barbed wire in case Russia attempts to flood its 1,343-kilometer border with illegal immigrants. But it could use additional assistance in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance collection from drones and other systems. The Baltic states’ military leaders warned that they would shoot any “little green men” and otherwise quickly respond to covert Russian military attacks.

Moscow’s cyber and AI skills, while impressive, are far less than those of the United States and its European allies, and bolstering cyber defenses will reduce some dangers. Intelligence sharing and training of allied militaries can diminish the impact of Russian support for insurgency and terrorism. Public exposure of Russian election manipulation can, in some cases, reduce its impact, and U.S. influence operations may prove more effective given the shaken condition of the Russian regime today. Most of all, the United States and its allies should link sanctions relief and other current punishments to Moscow’s gray zone meddling as well as its invasion of Ukraine.

The United States and its allies should also prepare efforts to discredit Russian private military companies around the world and counter Russian propaganda that promotes Putin as a successful leader. This would involve highlighting increases in terrorism in areas where groups like Wagner are used in Africa, the corruption of Russian officials, and videos that highlight the challenges for ordinary Russians due to Putin’s rule. More specific information efforts may target Russian elites that help hold up the regime: this may decrease their support for Putin or at the very least increase mistrust within elite circles.