Why Did Russia Escalate Its Gray Zone Conflict in Ukraine?

January 17, 2022

Why Did Russia Escalate Its Gray Zone Conflict in Ukraine?

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Editor’s Note: Russia appears to have taken so-called gray zone warfare to a new level, using subversion and clandestine operations to undermine its neighbors and expand its influence. Scholars J. Andres Gannon, Erik Gartzke, Jon Lindsay and Peter Schram contend, however, that Russia’s use of these methods is often ineffective and that Russia’s latest buildup shows the limits of gray zone warfare.

Daniel Byman


Russia’s escalation in its long-simmering conflict with Ukraine, much like its decision to start the shadow war in the first place, is a symptom of its relative weakness. The military conflict between Ukraine and Russia began in the aftermath of the Euromaidan crisis. Russian forces in disguise, dubbed “little green men,” moved to occupy Crimea in early 2014. This thinnest of veils appears to have been designed less to conceal the identity of Russian forces and more to equip leaders in the United States and Europe with a pretext for inaction. Since then, Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine have exchanged sniper and artillery fire with the Ukrainian army, and Russian intelligence agencies have conducted aggressive cyber and information operations targeting Ukrainian systems and public opinion. The Russian intervention in Ukraine has become the epitome of so-called gray zone conflict, a form of limited military competition that simmers chronically beyond peace but short of full-scale war

The Russian buildup now threatens to transform this gray zone conflict into a much larger, open war. In early December 2021, U.S. intelligence sources revealed that “the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops.” This move is puzzling if, as many pundits and defense experts have assumed, Russia possesses important advantages in gray zone conflicts. Cautious revisionists such as Russia, China and others should be able to gain concessions without the need to go to war, assuming that more traditional conceptions of deterrence are inadequate to address gray zone threats, and if defenders are ill equipped to respond to gray zone revisionism. Why then would Russian President Vladimir Putin incur the costs of mobilization, and the risks involved in major war, if he can get what he wants on the cheap? 

Rethinking the Gray Zone in Ukraine

In fact, gray zone conflict has not been the panacea for Russia’s aspirations that pundits have imagined.  Russian-backed separatists have been gradually losing in Ukraine. Ukrainian military capabilities to combat Russian separatists have markedly improved owing to better weapons, training and significant experience. The United States has committed $2.5 billion in lethal and nonlethal defensive aid to Ukraine since 2014, including more than $400 million in 2021 alone. Russian cyberattacks have had little effect on battlefield events, and Russian subversion has failed to politically weaken Ukraine. On the contrary, Kyiv now leans further toward Western Europe and the United States. And the NATO alliance has been galvanized with a sense of purpose not seen since the Cold War. In short, Russian efforts in the gray zone have proved counterproductive, at least in Ukraine, and at least for now. 

Heading toward a long, slow defeat on its border, Russia is confronted with three stark options. It can abandon the field and accept its loss of influence in Ukraine. This is no doubt unpalatable for Putin and his key domestic constituencies. Russia can also maintain its subversive activities, but this amounts to kicking the can of eventual defeat further into the future, even if it enables Putin to save face for the time being. Alternatively, Russia can acknowledge, in effect, that its strategy of gray zone warfare was a mistake and start treating Ukraine as something worth a direct, overt military intervention. The Ukrainian military might be better at gray zone conflict now, but it would be overwhelmed by a Russian invasion without substantial outside support. 

Russia’s potential invasion should prompt a serious reassessment of gray zone conflict. Rather than a clever and effective tool for Russia to get its way in the world without having to pay full price, gray zone conflict is perhaps better understood as a second-best option, a half-hearted way of pursuing foreign policy goals while avoiding risky consequences. 

Russia could have chosen to invade Ukraine in 2014, much as it did Georgia in 2008. No doubt, this would have been the quickest and most emphatic way to lock Ukraine into Moscow’s sphere of influence. But it also would have been an extremely confrontational move on the frontier of the nuclear-armed NATO alliance. Instead, Russia relied on limited means and anonymity to lessen the risks of retaliation. Russia adopted a limited approach to conflict in Ukraine because of its desire not to confront NATO. Yet, this second-best option has proved an even worse strategy than Putin expected, especially as the Kyiv government and its backers increasingly learned how to counter this particular type of Russian aggression.

Gray Zone Conflict as a Symptom of Deterrence Success

In other types of limited warfare, such as insurgency or terrorism, conflict is limited by the actors’ capabilities. In the gray zone, by contrast, conflict is limited because capable actors want it to be so—they are intentionally pulling their punches. Rather than overt military actions that attempt to resolve issues or disputes, gray zone conflict involves destabilization, disruption and subversion. Similar ideas have been described under the rubric of hybrid warnonlinear warsalami tactics, limited war, hassling or military operations other than war

The conventional wisdom is that gray zone conflict constitutes a deterrence failure. To paraphrase this perspective, revisionist states practicing aggression in the gray zone can “have their cake and eat it too,” gaining concessions from adversaries while avoiding most of the costs associated with war. 

Our research challenges this convention by viewing gray zone conflict as a symptom of deterrence success, not failure. Just as conflict is a continuum, so too is deterrence. An enemy that pulls its punches to avoid triggering a larger contest is deterred from fighting as effectively as it might in unconstrained circumstances. Gray zone conflict is thus the second-best option to open warfare for a challenger that is deterred from engaging in the latter. We find qualitative and quantitative evidence that Russian behavior is consistent with this perspective. Russia is more likely to show restraint in the means and severity of its aggression as the credibility of U.S. and NATO deterrence increases.

Pessimistic Implications of Deterrence Optimism

Our research also suggests that emphasizing low-level defensive capabilities may lead to further instability and war. Certainly, it would be wise for the United States to ensure more successes in the gray zone with more effective gray zone capabilities—including cyber defenses, special operations forces and Coast Guard forces. However, gray zone conflict is distinguished by mutual and deliberate restraint. Countries that become better at responding to gray zone conflict make it a worse option for the adversary, which may push adversaries into even riskier behaviors. 

It is reasonable to want the United States to be as willing and able to best its adversaries in gray zone contests as it is for full-scale wars. In some situations, however, it may be prudent to tolerate conflict in the gray zone as a way of relieving pressure without war, particularly if other alternatives are more destabilizing. If strategic stability is a desirable goal, it may be necessary to tolerate instability in the gray zone. But if the objective is to deny the adversary additional gains, rather than preserving stable continuity, then it is prudent to oppose gray zone activity more vigorously while at the same time preparing for the possibility of conventional conflict. The goals of stability and influence, and the military means used to pursue them, are often in tension.

It is a dangerous fantasy to imagine that any deterrence policy can prevent conflict altogether. At best, deterrence channels aggression, shaping where and how an adversary decides to compete, not whether it competes at all. In Ukraine, Russian aggression in the gray zone appears to have been symptomatic of successful deterrence by NATO. Now, possible Russian escalation out of the gray zone is symptomatic of successful gray zone conflict by Ukraine and its supporters.

Ukrainian success in the gray zone, and Russian intransigence, has transformed the contest into a brinkmanship crisis, for now. As of this writing, it remains unclear whether Russia’s mobilization is an opportunistic effort at influence peddling or a serious threat. A dilemma for Russia is that the same mobilization that provides a costly signal of resolve also improves the prospects for a successful invasion, which creates commitment problems. Coercive diplomacy becomes indistinguishable from military preparation, making it hard for Russia’s adversaries to trust any agreement to deescalate, and tempting Russia to act on its preparations.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

It is also unclear how the United States and NATO would ultimately respond to a Russian invasion, should one occur. The Biden administration has signaled that overwhelming sanctions are a likely reaction to an overt Russian invasion of Ukraine but also that large numbers of U.S. boots will not be deployed to Ukrainian ground. Putin appears willing to absorb economic retaliation and risk war to halt the eastward expansion of NATO. The irony, of course, is that Russian annexation of Crimea and de facto control over the Donbass has pushed the rest of Ukraine toward the West. Putin now appears to be willing to salvage his losing gray zone strategy by gambling on open warfare.

The silver lining to the gray zone is that it reveals the limits of commitment on all sides. Clarity on the Russian side helps to explain the escalation of the crisis, but clarity on the side of the United States and its partners helps to explain the limits of Russian influence. The diplomatic challenge, as always, is to avoid overcommitment in the intermediate areas of declining political interests. In this case, Russia is demanding a halt to NATO expansion in a region where it is not in NATO’s interest to expand. Because Russian escalation in Ukraine is a symptom of relative weakness, the United States and its allies are simultaneously strong enough to reassure Russia about the future of Ukraine and deter further aggression beyond it.

As Putin threatens war and makes demands, the United States and NATO look for off-ramps. Although Putin’s public demands for unconditional guarantees from NATO and the redeployment of its forces have been met with scorn, private discussions with the Biden administration are ongoing. While a public U.S. commitment to end eastward expansion of the NATO alliance is probably not in the cards, a quiet agreement to not move forward on formal accession for Ukraine might be viable. De facto neutrality and autonomy for Ukraine may not be every state’s first preference, but it is preferable to war. The eruption of civil unrest in Kazakhstan and the Russian-led peacekeeping intervention there may even provide a face-saving distraction to enable compromise on Ukraine.

But the basic problem remains. Gray zone tactics on the border of Russia have not worked, and posturing has not resulted in the kinds of concessions Putin can brag about at home or abroad. The political problem for him at this point is that the concessions he needs from the United States to justify drawing down Russian forces must be tangible, especially in light of his very public efforts to mobilize Russian public opinion. De facto neutrality for Ukraine would achieve his nominal objectives, for the time being, but Putin will have no piece of paper or public declaration from Washington to show for his brinkmanship. Even more disconcerting for Moscow, Kyiv will continue its reorientation to the West, and gray zone conflict will continue indefinitely.

Putin may be able to snatch compromise from the jaws of quagmire. Yet, he may also be forced to fight by his own decision to escalate Russian coercive diplomacy by mobilizing the same forces that make invasion more feasible. Whereas gray zone conflict is attractive in lieu of war, war becomes more likely in a brinkmanship contest due to path dependence and uncertainty. A limited war might enable Putin to save face, but even limited wars must run some risk of turning into larger cataclysms. It would not be the first time that nations found themselves involved in a conflict that, ex ante, they seemed intent on avoiding.