Has the War in Ukraine Damaged Russia's Gray Zone Capabilities?


Jun 22, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in the opening ceremony of new healthcare facilities in several regions of Russia, via video link in Saint Petersburg, Russia, June 18, 2022, photo by Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony of new healthcare facilities in Russia, via video link in Saint Petersburg, Russia, June 18, 2022

Photo by Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on June 22, 2022.

Four months into the conflict, the war in Ukraine remains primarily a conventional fight, replete with troop movements, missile strikes, and artillery barrages. Consequently, the damage to Russia's war machine has been measured principally in conventional terms—troop casualties, equipment destroyed, and the like. And yet, there has been one less-prominent element of collateral damage from Russia's war in Ukraine: its ability to conduct gray zone operations.

The gray zone has long been a focus of American policymakers. In 1948, famed American diplomat George Kennan warned of the emergence of “political warfare,” which he defined (PDF) as “the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Later scholars slapped other labels on it, but all of them essentially refer to a host of diplomatic, informational, economic, and military actions that states deploy to achieve their objectives below the threshold of full-scale conflict.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was seen as master of this domain, and Russia—as the heir to the Soviet legacy—enjoyed a similar reputation, particularly after its takeover of Crimea in 2014 and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian gray zone warfare has been the subject of intense academic and policy scrutiny. It has been to the topic of dozens, if not hundreds, of studies. Many of these studies painted the Russians as black belts in this form of psychological jujitsu, capable of achieving their desired outcomes at minimal costs while confounding their adversaries' ability to mount an effective response.

if Russian gray zone activity could not achieve success in Ukraine one wonders how well it could succeed elsewhere.

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After the Ukraine invasion, however, it is worth reassessing just how good the Russians are at these forms of modern political warfare. The very fact that Russia felt the need to resort to overt, large-scale conventional force in Ukraine—despite years of operating there in the gray zone—demonstrates that at least in Russian President Vladimir Putin's mind, these ambiguous uses of force in Ukraine failed to achieve their desired ends. And if Russian gray zone activity could not achieve success in Ukraine, despite the two states' common histories and cultures, one wonders how well it could succeed elsewhere. What's more, Russia's ability to conduct gray zone operations has surely suffered and will suffer in the years to come.

To begin with, Russia will now be playing on more-unfavorable terrain. Russia has never had favorable public opinion polling in Europe or the United States, but its popularity has cratered since the start of the Ukraine conflict. In Pew polling from March, 70 percent of Americans view Russia not just as a competitor, as it did prior to the conflict, but as an outright enemy, up from 41 percent in January. European views of Russia have similarly trended downward

The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.

Raphael S. Cohen is a senior political scientist and the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, Project AIR FORCE at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation.