The Rhetoric vs the Reality: Understanding NATO’s Capacity to Address Russian Gray-zone Conflict

by Dave Hansen, Morgan Musser, and Bruce Villasenor

Image courtesy of DARPA, see references below


This paper examines the question of whether NATO is currently enabled to effectively compete in gray-zone conflict by reviewing NATO's strategy through changes made to force structure and other areas over the past decade. While NATO has taken steps toward developing a defensive posture, the overwhelming preponderance of its efforts remains focused on conventional deterrence models. The paradox confronting NATO is that its force enhancement initiatives deter a security challenge that is unlikely to materialize. This, despite the knowledge Russia chooses forums of military competition which involve low risk of escalation, where it can pick its targets on a global and regional basis, limit intervention, and achieve gains at minimum cost and exposure. To this end, NATO has not addressed many of the key challenges posed by the methods Russia executes for long-term strategic competition. The paper concludes that NATO has not fully operationalized a strategy that can effectively respond to the fact that most military competition with Russia, for at least the next decade, will take form in the gray area. Regardless how much the US or NATO build up their global military forces and readiness, the resulting increase in conventional strength will only serve a strategic purpose if they are able to deter theater conflict. Stated plainly, NATO continues to prepare for the wrong kind of war. Recommendations are offered to minimize Russia’s attempts to influence other nations, maximize opportunities from conflicts, and gain strategic leverage.

“For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting, this is the acme of skill…There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare." ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War


After nearly thirty years, the term ‘gray-zone” conflict re-appeared in US defense documents in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, referencing challenges that occur in an “ambiguous gray area that is neither fully war nor fully peace.” Gray-zone activities are not new, and military historians may point out that all wars included hybrid elements.[1] Most of what today comprises as gray-zone conflict fits squarely with what George Kennan described as “the logical application of Clausewitz's doctrine in time of peace…short of war, to achieve… objectives.”[2] Even the most cursory review of twentieth-century Cold War history points to a number of the hallmarks of gray-zone warfare (often referred to as hybrid or threshold warfare) including subversion, disinformation, and economic coercion. All were central elements of then-Soviet intelligence operations, known as “active measures.” Such actions continue today. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 demonstrated employment of combined supply disruptions, cyber-attacks, economic and political influence, and disinformation efforts to undermine the country’s energy security and sow political instability. “Gray-zone” activities are often ambiguous, and many do not explicitly violate the current post-Cold War international system, rendering traditional deterrence models of overwhelming force impractical.

“Gray-zone warfare” is defined as an aggressor engaging in political actions that circumvent traditional norms and laws of war, in the pursuit of objectives that are difficult to achieve with conventional force options. The government on the receiving end usually struggles to confront and limit the aggressors’ actions. The ‘gray’ antagonist wages a subtle war in which they are better able to control informational narratives and conduct warfare in a way that it prevents the opposing state from unleashing all of its hard and soft power to defeat it. Properly addressing an adversary in such a context necessitates the use of measured doses of instrumental power.[3]

Adversaries like Russia now possess a broad range of tools capable of being deployed with far greater reach and impact than those of previous decades. Russia today is a revisionist power, seeking to re-establish its influence in the post-Soviet space and change the post-Cold War security order in Europe. This emerged as the central challenge to European prosperity and security: the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition. It is increasingly clear Russia seeks to shape a world consistent with its authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions. In 2014, Putin officially approved this model of competition[4] in the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.[5]The doctrine describes Russia’s view of modern warfare as the “integrated employment of military force and political, economic, informational or other non-military measures implemented with a wide use of the protest potential and select employment of special operations forces.”[6] Russia transitioned to and has effectively employed its “New Generation Warfare” in Georgia, the Donbass, Crimea, and the Baltic States.

Russia now appears ready to sustain such actions for looming competition well into the 2020s.[7] The 2007 cyberattack in Tallinn, Estonia[8] and the 2017 MAERSK cyber-attack targeted by the ‘notPetyo’ malware virus[9] demonstrated the increasing need to operationalize an international capacity to react.[10] In 2020, a suspected Russian group, Berserk Bear APT, launched cyber-attacks against German energy companies after being implicated in previous attacks against German utilities in 2018.[11] Russian-backed cyber-attacks against energy assets were identified by a number of Alliance members, including Poland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Its cyber campaigns have run concurrent with other hybrid threats against energy assets, like malign influence efforts, natural gas supply cutbacks, and attacks on oil rigs in the Black Sea.[12] Thus, despite the ability to recognize and describe the problem,[13] NATO has fallen short in several areas of deterrence which include operationalizing and integrating capacity within actionable tools that are fit-for-purpose.

The Wales Summit Declaration, issued in September 2014, vowed to ensure NATO could effectively address the challenges posed by these new techniques. The Declaration considered it essential that the Alliance possess “the necessary tools and procedures required to deter and respond effectively to hybrid warfare threats, and the capabilities to reinforce national forces.”[14] The threat posed by Russia’s employment of gray-zone activities would henceforth require an adaptation of NATO´s military strategic posture and its entire approach to territorial defense. It is against this backdrop that this paper examines the question of whether NATO formations are currently enabled to effectively compete in gray-zone conflict. Since 2014, has NATO established a strategy which enables a capacity to react and meet the requirements for a modern collective defense, while preserving balance with its core tasks? To examine these topics, this paper reviews NATO's strategy through the implementation of changes over the past decade, specifically NATO implementation of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP).[15]

It is important to also consider US posture towards hybrid warfare given the significant US contribution to NATO operations. Challenges within the force structure of both will be addressed, as well as a specific look into the information environment and cyber domain, key components of gray-zone warfare. Lastly, the paper offers recommendations to policymakers regarding how NATO might effectively operate in a gray-zone environment into the next decade.

NATO Strategy

Strategies for effectively tackling gray-zone warfare are not inherently concerned with balancing security threats, specifically when such events occur in the information or economic arena – areas which military commands are not well-organized to address. While senior NATO officials and planners have considered the significance of gray-zone conflict and the need to respond in a deliber­ate manner, several implementation challenges remain, especially in the pre-Article 5 declaration context.

At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO Allies stated that hybrid attacks could trigger Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.[16] Collective attribution remained a delicate issue, as it touches upon national sovereignty. However, when Russian agents used a nerve agent in March 2018 in an attempt to kill a former double agent in Salisbury, UK, a joint statement was quickly released condemning the attack and expressing solidarity with the British Government. Most NATO and EU member states named Russia as the culprit, and NATO Allies and partners expelled over 140 Russian officials. While it is impossible to know for sure if such collective attribution (“name and shame”) deters future acts, Allies delivered the message that hybrid activities come at a price that not all attackers may be willing to pay.[17]

Despite this, examples of solidarity remain the exception, as challenges persist between NATO nations to integrate capabilities. First, there is no alliance-wide synergy of response tools enabling NATO nations. The 2015 Strategy on NATO’s Role in Countering Hybrid Warfare deferred on this, conceding the primacy of individual nations over collective action in countering hybrid acts.[18] Thus, several controlled technical resources are restricted to national use and remain unavailable to NATO formations.[19] Intelligence collection also remains varied between states. Intelligence sharing, a major tool in attributing hybrid threats, also remains limited. For example, there is not an Alliance-wide technical architecture for sharing near-real-time intelligence, especially between the NATO command structure and its subordinate formations. Protocols defining appropriate response options are limited and delineated command authority in multi-domain operations clarifying suitable, or legally appropriate responses to threshold activities are non-existent. This is especially challenging when Russia’s gray-zone behavior bypasses the norms of democracy and the rule of law abided by the US and NATO.

These challenges are not unique to the Alliance. The United States also lacks a strategy to employ a broad range of deterrence options.[20] The United States’ global “peace through strength” strategy leading up to 2014 did little to deter Russia from taking bold moves in Ukraine and Georgia. While the US has focused on “peace through strength” with its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), this is but a facet of global power competition. Given the deterioration of the Cold War-era arms control framework, it is certainly critical to sustain nuclear deterrence and conventional defense capabilities in the twenty-first century. However, while deterring “worst case” and nuclear wars is a key mission, it is not the central focus of long-term competition. Realistically, conventional deterrence models of overwhelming force offer little toward addressing gray-zone activities. Such broad strategies are not attuned to the flexibility required to respond on the sliding scale of gray-zone activities. Thus, hybrid threats will inevitably remain a long-term strategic challenge for the NATO Alliance.