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Research Questions

  1. How are gray zone activities defined? What are different types of gray zone tactics?
  2. Where are vulnerabilities to gray zone tactics in Europe? What are those vulnerabilities?

Recent events in Crimea and the Donbass in eastern Ukraine have upended relations between Russia and the West, specifically the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Although Russia's actions in Ukraine were, for the most part, acts of outright aggression, Russia has been aiming to destabilize both its "near abroad" — the former Soviet states except for the Baltics — and wider Europe through the use of ambiguous "gray zone" tactics. These tactics include everything from propaganda and disinformation to election interference and the incitement of violence.

To better understand where there are vulnerabilities to Russian gray zone tactics in Europe and how to effectively counter them, the RAND Corporation ran a series of war games. These games comprised a Russian (Red) team, which was tasked with expanding its influence and undermining NATO unity, competing against a European (Green) team and a U.S. (Blue) team, which were aiming to defend their allies from Red's gray zone activities without provoking an outright war. In these games, the authors of this report observed patterns of behavior from the three teams that are broadly consistent with what has been observed in the real world. This report presents key insights from these games and from the research effort that informed them.

Key Findings

The research in this report and elsewhere suggests that the West is winning this competition, but does not recognize it.

  • "Everyday" gray zone actions must be differentiated from more aggressive and focused gray zone actions.
  • Based on the war games conducted to support this project, the authors observed that NATO and the EU are unlikely to be able to compel Russia to stop using nonviolent Russian gray zone tactics, but they might be able to deter high-order aggression.
  • Vulnerability to Russian gray zone tactics varies significantly across Europe. Russia's "near abroad" and the Balkans are particularly susceptible, while the Baltics and Western and Central Europe are not.
  • Civil organizations, rather than military ones, might be best positioned to counter Russian gray zone tactics.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two


  • Chapter Three

    The Gray Zone Is More Usefully Conceptualized as a Type of Tactic, Rather Than an Operational Environment

  • Chapter Four

    "Everyday" Gray Zone Actions Must Be Differentiated from More Aggressive, Focused Gray Zone Actions.

  • Chapter Five

    NATO and the EU Are Unlikely to Be Able to Compel Russia to Stop Using Nonviolent, Everyday Russian Gray Zone Tactics, but They Might Be Able to Deter Higher-Order Aggression

  • Chapter Six

    Vulnerability to Russian Gray Zone Tactics Varies Significantly Across Europe

  • Chapter Seven

    Civilian Organizations, Rather Than the Military, Might Be Best Positioned to Counter Most Russian Gray Zone Tactics

  • Chapter Eight

    The West Might Be Winning This Competition, but Does Not Recognize It

  • Appendix

    Wargaming the Gray Zone

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, U.S. Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

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