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