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Understanding And Defeating Putin’s “Gray Zone”

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By Bill Connor

Despite Russian denials, it is now clear to most Americans Putin was behind an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Granted, senior leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community do not believe the hacking affected the outcome of the election, but the Russian actions to undermine our democratic process demand response. With the change in administrations, we are now seeing increasingly provocative actions by Russia against the interests of the United States.

A Russian spy ship was sighted only 50 miles off the eastern seaboard. The same day the spy ship was discovered we learned of a treaty violation involving Russian cruise missiles deployed within range of NATO targets. More disturbingly is an increase in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine over the past several weeks. Americans, particularly American political leaders, need to face the reality of the threat, quit the hyper-partisanship over national security, and unite to fight back.

Let me explain: For the quarter century since the fall of the USSR, the U.S. has enjoyed a unique sustained period as the sole world power, relatively unchallenged by the military or economic power of any competitor. As a result of this unique advantage – and after the stunning defeat of the fourth largest military in the world, Iraq, in 1991; adversary nations have not challenged the U.S. in conventional warfare.

However, a lesson was gleaned during the succeeding years from Desert Storm which was the U.S. faces a myriad of challenges in handling unconventional conflicts. The Russians under Putin have determined they can and will challenge U.S. vital interests in what is known as the “gray zone,” a realm beneath conventional war and what we’ve traditionally defined as unconventional warfare. Though gray-zone operations are indeed unconventional.

What Russia is doing is not with the aim of defeating the U.S. outright to become the new sole world power. Adversaries seek to become regional hegemons in the important regions of Europe, East Asia and the Middle East against the interest of the U.S. That makes gray-zone conflicts the significant national security issue we face, particularly the Russian challenge.

Russia seems to follow “realism” in its approach to foreign relations. Thucydides put realism best in the “Melian Dialogue” of his masterpiece The Peloponnesian Wars, “Since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Unlike a direct conventional military threat which Russia knows will not succeed against the U.S. as a practical matter, gray-zone victories are possible in gaining the power Thucydides describes and explains much of the motivation.

As Dr. Antulio J. Echavarria has noted, a respective gray zone adversary seeks to confound policymakers by acting below the violence required for traditional recognition of war. “Uses of military force that fall short of actual war but which definitely do not qualify as peace,” he says.

We are seeing gray-zone planning openly discussed by the Russians and used by Putin against the U.S.

In 2013, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov presented what has become known as the “Gerasimov Model” for “hybrid” warfare of fighting in the gray zone.

According to Gerasimov, “The role of non-military means of achieving political, and strategic goals… Have exceeded the power of the force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

The Russians successfully employed hybrid gray-zone warfare in operations against Georgia in 2008 by inserting forces through illicit and deceptive means, and then Crimea and Ukraine in 2014. Of note, this involves actions which would not trigger a NATO article 5 declaration of war (attack on one member is attack on all). Deception and minor violations of international law abound in the gray zone. Putin initially denied Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine while his forces were involved in combat but not in uniform. Once Putin achieved his objectives, he admitted his forces were involved.

This is what we face.

The U.S. must develop a plan and take action to gain a decisive advantage in the gray-zone conflict. A first step is recognizing the deception and illicit methods being used.

The U.S. must be prepared to handle each unique gray-zone threat by a range of military and non-military means. This should consider the option of special-operations forces operating through third party nations like Ukraine. With respect to Ukraine, we should immediately offer military support as a reaction to Russian incursion. This sends the message we will not tolerate use of gray-zone methods against our interests. U.S. financial leveraging must become more responsive and robust against Russian interests when appropriate. The U.S. must also integrate cyberwarfare and information operations into a unified operational plan for the gray zone. We have the right to respond to Russian cyber-attacks and hacking. The U.S. must build a robust cyber capability. Cyber capability should include information operations informing the citizens of Russia of the reality of Putin’s actions.

The world has become much more dangerous and complex since 1991, and it is time we recognize the ways in which Russia is challenging the U.S. in the gray zone. This does not mean seeking conventional war against Russia, and it does not mean we cannot work with Russia toward defeating mutual enemies like ISIS. We need to focus on exposing the gray-zone warfare before it gets worse. It also means deterring future gray-zone actions with the consequences we promise to bring. Most importantly, we need to quit the internal political squabbling when it comes to facing our adversaries and defending this great nation.

COL Bill Connor, a U.S. Army Reserve infantry officer, is a former senior U.S. military adviser in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.