Authors | Editors: Arquilla, J. (Naval Postgraduate School); Borshchevskaya, A. (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy); Bragg, B. (NSI, Inc.); Devyatkin, P. (The Arctic Institute); Dyet, A. (U.S. Army, J5-Policy USCENTCOM); Ellis, R.E. (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute); Flynn, D. (Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)); Goure, D. (Lexington Institute); Kamp, A. (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)); Kangas, R. (National Defense University); Katz, M. (George Mason University, Schar School of Policy and Government); Koven, B. (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)); Lamoreaux, J. (Brigham Young University- Idaho); Laruelle, M. (George Washington University); Marsh, C. (Special Operations Research Association); Person, R. (United States Military Academy, West Point); Pyatkov, R. (HAF/A3K CHECKMATE); Schindler, J. (The Locarno Group); Severin, M. (UK Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC)); Sherlock, T. (United States Military Academy, West Point); Siegle, J. (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University); Spalding, R. (U.S. Air Force); Weitz, R. (Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute); Werchan, J. (USEUCOM Strategy Division & Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI)); Peterson, N. (NSI, Inc.)
This white paper was prepared as part of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment, entitled The Future of Global Competition and Conflict, in direct response to a series of questions posed by the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Twenty-three experts contributed to this white paper and provided wide-ranging assessments of Russia’s global interests and objectives, as well as the activities—gray or otherwise—that it conducts to achieve them. This white paper is divided into five sections and twenty-five chapters, as described below. This summary reports some of the white paper’s high-level findings, but it is no substitute for a careful read of the individual contributions.
There is broad consensus among the contributors that Russian President Vladimir Putin is indeed adhering to a global grand strategy, which aims to achieve the following goals:
According to Dr. Robert Person, these goals are motivated by Russia’s deep-seated geopolitical insecurity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to find its place in the global community, which has left the leadership with a lingering desire to regain the influence and power that it once had. In particular, Russia seeks to regain its influence over former Soviet states, which it claims are in its rightful “sphere of influence” (Lamoreaux; Person; Marsh). As a result, one of the United States’ core goals, namely promoting and protecting the international liberal order, comes into contention with the goals of Russia’s grand strategy. This underpins the Kremlin’s belief that it must contain and constrain US influence and activities in Europe and elsewhere across the globe. As Ms. Anna Borshchevskaya’s contribution suggests, the Russian leadership’s worldview is zero-sum; it believes that in order for Russia to win, the US must lose. However, Dr. Christopher Marsh’s contribution suggests that this world view is not necessarily shared by the Russian population or its elite. As evidenced by the range of “gray zone” activities it engages in, a number of the expert contributors argue that the Russian leadership sees itself as at war with the US and the West as a whole. From a Russian perspective, this war is not total, but rather, it is fundamental (Goure)—a type of “war” that is at odds with the general US understanding of warfare. Russia believes that there is no unacceptable or illegitimate form of deterrence, compellence, or escalation management (Goure). It also does not believe in the continuum of conflict that the US has constructed. Like Russia’s perception of its competition with the US, its perception of conflict is dichotomous: one is either at war or not at war. To fight and win this war, Russia believes that the successful integration of all instruments of state power (Goure), as well as the orchestrated employment of non-military and military means to deter and compel (Flynn), are paramount. Furthermore, Russian military concepts include options for employing preemptive force to induce shock and dissuade an adversary from conducting military operations and to compel a de-escalation of hostilities (Flynn). The authors observe that Russia’s strategies are continuously evolving and expect that the discrepancy between the Russian and the US understanding of “conflict” and “war” will continue to grow, leading to a higher risk of escalation in future situations involving both nations.
Overall, Russia’s influence abroad is growing, and the Kremlin has mastered the use of “hybrid warfare” in driving Russia’s foreign policy (Lamoreaux). Russia utilizes a variety of gray zone tactics around the globe. These include the use of paramilitary forces and other proxies, interference in political processes, economic and energy exploitation (particularly in Africa), espionage, and media and propaganda manipulation. Putin is also adept at blending military and civilian elements for maximum impact (Weitz).
The specific tactics of hybrid warfare that Russia uses vary by region. In Europe, for example, Russia has utilized propaganda, an increasing dependence on external energy resources, and political manipulation to achieve its primary goals (Schindler; Lamoreaux). In contrast, in the Middle East and Africa— important sources of minerals and other natural resources from a Russian perspective1— Russia has primarily utilized economic exploitation tools (Katz; Borshchevskaya; Severin). In Central Asia, Russia maintains a much more limited presence, due to China’s geographic proximity and the current levels of economic and security engagement by other regional actors (Kangas). Nevertheless, Russia does retain influence in the Central Asia, as a result of its historical, linguistic, and cultural connections to the region (Laruelle; Dyet). Likewise, in Latin America, Russia lacks a sufficient amount of deployable resources to fully implement its strategy or to extend its influence very far (Ellis). However, as Dr. Barnett S. Koven and Ms. Abigail C. Kamp observe, Russia makes up for its shortcomings by engaging in episodic and reactive endeavors to disrupt US influence in the region.
Although Russian tactics vary significantly, in all regions of the world energy has been a key source of Russian power and influence (Weitz; Lamoreaux; Borshchevskaya; Devyatkin; Pyatkov; Werchan). Globally, many countries have developed a strong relationship with Russia when it comes to energy. Russia’s energy priorities extend worldwide, and European nations in particular have become dependent on Russia for access to these resources. Africa and the Arctic have also become significant as Russia looks to exploit opportunities for energy-related commerce.
Despite the strength of Russia’s growing influence abroad and the diverse array of gray zone tactics it uses to achieve its strategic goals, the US can still limit the results of this grand strategy. There is broad consensus among the contributors that countering Russian provocations will require the use of all instruments of national power. In particular, US success will be reliant both on its ability to influence populations, states, and non-state actors, and on its ability to minimize Russia’s influence on these actors (Bragg). Creating effective narratives in each of the regions covered in this white paper will be critical for achieving this goal (Kangas; Bragg). Furthermore, the US can counter specific Russian gray zone activities, such as diversifying energy sources to reduce European nations’ dependence on Russia (Pyatkov; Werchan) and counteracting propaganda by creating both resilient democratic institutions and populations abroad, particularly in Europe (Pyatkov). Finally, it is imperative that the US establishes a consensus definition of “gray zone” (Bragg) and reevaluates old paradigms defining war and peace, as we enter a “new era of international politics which is defined by shades of gray” (Weitz). Once defined, a federal agency dedicated to gray zone activities may be required in order to implement a true whole of government approach to combatting Russian influence activities abroad (Werchan).
This white paper has been separated into five parts:
Part I analyzes the key sources of motivation or interests that drive Russian global competitive activities and strategy. This part also addresses the fundamental issues being contested and how these issues impact enduring US national interests.
Part II examines, from a Russian perspective, what constitutes legitimate or acceptable deterrence, compellence, and/or escalation management. Part II also evaluates how Russia perceives the continuum of conflict, as well as how it plans for, operates within, and manages risk within the gray zone. Lastly, Part II assesses the implications of the differences between US and Russian thinking for senior political and military decision makers.
Part III identifies actions the Russians are undertaking in the Gray Zone across the following regions: a) Europe, b) Central Asia and China, c) the Middle East, d) Africa, e) Latin America, and f) the Arctic.
Part IV identifies potential actions that the US could employ either proactively or in response to provocative Russian activities in the gray zone across the following regions: a) Europe, b) Central Asia and China, c) the Middle East, d) Africa, e) Latin America, and f) the Arctic.
Part V highlights capabilities that the US requires to effectively respond to actions the Russians are undertaking in the gray zone.
Part I. What Drives Russia’s Global Interests and Strategy?
Chapter 1: Dr. Jeremy W. Lamoreaux identifies three motivations underpinning Russian grand strategy: (1) for the country to be recognized as a great power with its own distinct sphere of influence; (2) the Russian elite perception that Russia has a moral right to predominance within “its” sphere of influence; and (3) the desire to see US global influence curbed and, if possible, scaled back.
Chapter 2: Using the military’s traditional understanding of “strategy” as the coordinated integration of ends, ways, and means, Dr. Robert Person explicates Russian grand strategy. The main “end” of Russian grand strategy in the 21st century is establishing is a “Yalta 2.0,” in which Russia enjoys an uncontested sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region, broadcasts Russian voice and influence globally, and establishes reliable constraints on American globe-trotting and regime-change activities. Russia’s ways can be described as one of “asymmetric balancing” through gray zone challenges to prevent uncontested US influence from setting the global agenda. Russia’s means, Person argues, expanded with the oil boom, allowing critical investments and increases in defense spending to be made.
Chapter 3: Using survey data, Dr. Thomas Sherlock shows that neither the Russian mass public, nor Russia elites, believe that the West, particularly the United States, poses a critical military or political danger to the Russian state or regime. While both elites and members of the mass public are supportive of restoring Russia’s great power status, they often define a great power and its priorities more in terms of domestic socio-economic development than in the production and demonstration of hard power. These perspectives increasingly come into conflict with those of Kremlin.
Chapter 4: Dr. Richard Weitz explores key motivations and interests driving Russian global competitive activities and strategies. He discusses how Russian strategists adeptly select gray zone tools optimized to their objectives. These tools often include paramilitary forces, economic and energy exploitation, and media and propaganda manipulation. He suggests that Washington must reevaluate old paradigms between war and peace to maintain strategic primacy in this new era of international politics that is defined by shades of gray.
Chapter 5: Dr. Christopher Marsh takes on one of the most significant questions surrounding Russian foreign policy: whether president Vladimir Putin has an overarching strategy. In his paper, he describes Putin’s grand strategy for Russia and the world. He also analyzes each of Russia’s interests and to what degree they pose a threat to vital US national interests.
Part II. How Does Russia Perceive Deterrence, Compellence, Escalation Management, and the Continuum of Conflict?
Chapter 6: Dr. Daniel Goure argues that according to Russian strategic thought, Russia is already at war with the West. There is no separate concept of gray zone: war is not total, but it is fundamental to the Russian perspective. It follows that Russia’s ability to manage risk in the so-called gray zone is a function of its successful integration of all the instruments of state power.
Chapter 7: Mr. Daniel J. Flynn describes Russian coercive strategies involving the orchestrated employment of nonmilitary and military means to deter and compel the United States prior to and after any outbreak of hostilities. The risk to the US is that these strategies increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation during a future crisis involving the United States.
Part III. What Gray Zone Actions Are Russia Undertaking Across the Globe?
Chapter 8: Dr. John Schindler identifies Russian activities in Europe within a historical and ideological framework. In doing so, he identifies key similarities and differences between the Putin regime and Tsarist Russia, as well as the regime and the Soviet Union. Present day Russian institutions and religious discourse are examined, and Dr. Schindler predicts that the Kremlin will act aggressively in a number of domains, including the few in which it holds an advantage against the United States and its allies. He suggests that a near-term future of “Special War” (i.e. low-level operations that fall below the threshold of declared war) will be the Russian modus operandi and cautions US and allied policymakers to guard against such actions.
Chapter 9: Dr. Jeremy W. Lamoreaux explains that the list of Russian activities in Europe remains long and complex, and the means that the Kremlin uses to sow instability span geopolitics, economics, diplomacy, and military domains. In this chapter, Dr. Lamoreaux pays special attention to Russia’s ability to propagate societal discord, particularly through Russian-linked populations in the Baltic States. These populations, whether active or passive participants in a campaign, are vulnerable to Russian actions aimed at weakening social cohesion in these states. Short of each side grudgingly accepting the other’s claims on the continent (which is improbable), Russia and the West are likely to be locked in at some level of competition for the near future.
Chapter 10: Dr. Marlene Laruelle states that, despite a more crowded field of large states vying for influence in Central Asia, Russia still retains a prime position as “first among equals,” due to its historical, linguistic, and cultural connections to states in the region. To wit, Russia can exercise remunerative, punitive, and ideological power over the states within the bloc. It has tried to develop its diplomatic, economic, and military relationships with states in the region, with varying degrees of success. Even though the space for great powers to exert influence has become more crowded, because of relatively recent overtures by China and the United States, this region is not necessarily a site of zero-sum statist competition, due to shared objectives by these great powers.
Chapter 11: Dr. Mark N. Katz explains that, although the United States and Russia share a number of objectives in the Middle East, the means by which Russia seeks to achieve these objectives will likely continue to bring it into conflict with the United States. The Kremlin has purported itself as a reliable interlocutor and partner to Middle Eastern nations, some of whom fear wavering commitment by the United States recently. Animated largely by fears of a restive Muslim population that could end up within his borders, in addition to economic and prestige concerns, Vladimir Putin has been conducting deft diplomacy within the region. However, his strategy is vulnerable to shocks to the system and may not be able to withstand Arab Spring/Color Revolution-style uprisings within the region.
Chapter 12: Ms. Anna Borshchevskaya highlights Russia’s series of multi-faceted outreach initiatives in Africa. Through economic, military, and other means, Russia is creating an intentional dependence among North Africa’s military, political leaders and businessmen on continuous Russian support. For more autocratic regimes, Russia’s support is intended to provide a shield against Western influence in the area through forming alliances with the country’s strongmen, while serving as an intermediary for local conflict resolution. Russia’s key interests include gaining and protecting access to the Mediterranean coast, while exploiting opportunities for energy and trade. The intent of these efforts is increased political leverage, rather than a genuine resolution for the people of North Africa.
Chapter 13: Ms. Malin Severin argues that Russia believes that it is currently engaged in a multi- faceted conflict with the West, and is constrained by Western policies and actions. As such, Russia has established several footholds in Africa. The Russian presence goes beyond seeking natural resources; Russia has placed private military contractors and advisors into several African regimes, including the Central African Republic, among others. These actions reflect a strategy similar to that revealed through Russian activities in the Ukraine and Syria, and involvement is likely to increase as the US potentially takes steps to limit Western presence in Africa.
Chapter 14: Dr. R. Evan Ellis explains that Russian activity in Latin America, while constrained by resources and geopolitical events, has been historically focused on the Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan regimes, although it is not limited solely to those regimes. By attempting to create both economic and military footholds, Russia seeks opportunities to expand its influence in the region. Despite setbacks due to regional events, Russia is likely to continue to explore ways to leverage and exploit opportunities for increasing both its military and economic presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chapter 15: Mr. Pavel Devyatkin writes that Russia’s activities in the Arctic have included more multilateral cooperation, and have been focused on securing access for northern shipping routes and energy extraction. The formation of the Arctic Council between Russia and other Arctic countries has enabled cooperation on resolution of territorial claims, as well as oil spill and search-and-rescue operations. Strategically, the Arctic region plays a significant role in Russia’s energy, economic, and defense priorities, as evidenced by the size and activities of the Northern Fleet, as well as frequent mention in Russian published doctrine.
Part IV. How Should the US Counteract Russian Gray Zone Activities Across the Globe?
Chapter 16: Mr. Roman “Comrade” Pyatkov discusses potential global actions to counter provocative Russian activities. The US National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls out Russian actions to undermine NATO and modify European and Middle Eastern security and economic organizations in its favor (National Defense Strategy summary, p. 2). Countering Russian provocations requires all instruments of national power, and US responses can be both proactive and reactive. Proactively, the United States can strengthen its allies’ and partners’ democratic systems of governance, while reducing their dependence on Russian energy through diversification of energy sources. To counter Russian military proxies, the United States can increase the capabilities of allies and partners. Meanwhile, Russian threats to use force can be mitigated by demonstrating US resolve and capability to deter and defeat Russian aggression.
Chapter 17: Dr. Jeremy W. Lamoreaux focuses on countering Russian influence in the Baltic States. He writes that Russian influence in Europe happens primarily through “hybrid warfare” techniques. To counter this, the United States ought to take steps to strengthen economic, political, and societal liberalism across Europe. Economic and political liberalism both create strong states, capable of providing the institutions necessary for societal liberalism. Societal liberalism, when it is upheld by the rule of law, helps create a more diverse, yet united, populace that is more committed to the state and its basic institutions, and less likely to be influenced by outside sources (in this case, Russia).
Chapter 18: Dr. Roger Kangas recommends a US approach to Russian activities across Central Asia. He begins by discussing the particular difficulties of Central Asia, geopoltically. Among the sub- regions of the world, the area of Central Asia is one of the more difficult regions to outline clear actions for the US, simply because of the advantages that other large powers have, due to geographic proximity and current rates of economic and security engagement. Given this geopolitical reality in Central Asia, the US has a limited role to play. If the “tools of engagement” are exercised consistently and clearly, the US can have a positive influence in the region. The countries collectively chafe at that notion they are part of a “Russian Near Abroad.” Officials and analysts from the region repeatedly discuss the need to choose their future paths of engagement, whether in terms of multi-vectored security relations or diversifying trade and export/import routes. These signals can be addressed by US policies and actions. The refrain from needing the US to act as a “balancer” is heard from such actors, as well as many in the Washington, DC think tank community that focus on Central Asia. To do this, the US must be able to shape its own narrative in the region, combatting a rather vitriolic Russian message that paints the US in a negative light.
Chapter 19: Dr. Robert Spalding III discusses how the US role with regard to Russia should be to continue to engage European allies to take the lead for balancing in Europe. The allies’ goal should be deterrence. At the same time, the US should bilaterally engage Russia to peel them away from China’s orbit. The US can work with Russia in ways that improve the US-Russia relationship without detracting from European efforts to balance and deter. This can be applied by engaging with Russia in other regional or functional domains that do not detract from European efforts to deter.
Chapter 20: MAJ Adam Dyet argues that, while the breakup of the Soviet Union presented the US with new engagement opportunities in Central Asia, options to expand US influence in the area remain limited. He argues that despite Central Asian ire at Russian activities in Ukraine, Russian influence in the area remains high, and US policy makers should take a carefully moderated approach to engagement in Central Asia. Suggestions of diplomatic, security, and economic activities that the US could undertake are offered, as are cautions about treading over long-standing Russian red lines.
Chapter 21: MAJ Adam Dyet discusses a variety of ways in which the United States can respond to Russian gray zone activities in the Middle East—the balance of which, he argues, are directly tied to Russian strategic culture and a worldview based in a history of invasion and military encirclement.
Chapter 22: Dr. Joseph Siegle discusses Russian interests in Africa, namely access to natural resources and new markets for Russian goods, including weapons. He argues that, as a result, Russia has tended to support autocratic or uninclusive regimes, giving the US an opportunity to distinguish itself in Africa by pursuing an assertive policy against individual corrupt leaders and positive engagement, while also supporting democratic reforms.
Chapter 23: Dr. Barnett S. Koven and Ms. Abigail C. Kamp explain that Russia’s activities in Latin America have largely been an extension of its efforts to operate within the gray zone between overt military conflict and normal peacetime operations. In Latin America, the Kremlin has engaged in electoral meddling and targeted disinformation campaigns in order to impose costs on adversaries. In Mexico, Russian media had vocally supported a chosen candidate, and observers noted activity by bots and trolls in support of that candidate’s agenda. In Colombia, Russia had long supplied arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist insurgency, but since the group’s recent peace deal with the Colombian government, the Kremlin may need to change tactics in order to maintain influence therein. Colombia’s complex political dynamics, nevertheless, provides a fertile ground for Russian activities, spanning electoral meddling, mass media disinformation, and hardliners within the FARC.
Part V. What Capabilities Does the US Need to Effectively Respond to Russian Gray Zone Activities?
Chapter 24: Dr. Belinda Bragg provides a summary of findings from an SMA project on gray zone conflict, noting the importance of honing a clear definition of the “competitive zone” within which gray activities occur. She also notes that an effective US response to these activities requires added capabilities to both influence foreign populations and block the efforts of others to manipulate popular sentiment.
Chapter 25: Mr. Jason Werchan argues that Russia’s form of governance gives it “significant flexibility” and an advantage over the US when it comes to gray zone activities. The US needs a true whole-of-government approach to counter Russia in this area. Werchan suggests that the US government should identify a lead federal agency for US activities in the gray zone. He also encourages the development of the US’s “capability to effectively foster distrust and unease between the Russia Federation and China,” as well as US efforts to reduce European dependence on Russian energy resources.